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Can a social media post change public opinion? Researchers weigh in

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every so often, it feels like one topic consumes all of social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Breonna Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) Say her name.

SHAPIRO: Maybe it's Black Lives Matter or, a few months after that, the presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

SHAPIRO: In these posts, everyone seems to retreat to their corners, taking positions for or against something, like abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Look, America. You're not James Bond. You don't have a license to kill, which is what you're doing when you have an abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Forced pregnancy is literally a war crime, and it shouldn't be forced upon anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.

SHAPIRO: For two months now, the unavoidable topic on social media has been Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Chanting) Cease-fire now. Cease-fire now.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Chanting) No cease-fire. No cease-fire

SHAPIRO: And although it can feel like these posts are shouting at each other from opposite sides of an arena, even people with the strongest disagreements seem to share one central belief.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is a PSA that we need shared heavily.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: People, listen very strong right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You've been lied to. We all have.

SHAPIRO: That belief is if the post is just compelling enough, it'll change someone's mind. I wondered, is that true? Can the right TikTok or Instagram story or Facebook post actually persuade someone to change their position? Well, in 2020, a group of more than a dozen academics from all over the U.S. looked into this question.

JENNIFER PAN: I'm Jennifer Pan, a professor of communication at Stanford.

ANDY GUESS: I'm Andy Guess, and I'm an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.

SHAPIRO: Professors Pan and Guess were two of the lead authors on a study published in the journal Science.

PAN: And so what we did as part of the study is offer users on Facebook and Instagram the opportunity to participate. And then we randomly assigned them to a number of interventions that changed their Facebook and Instagram experience.

SHAPIRO: So with the users' permission, the researchers changed the algorithm or the number of reshares people saw or whether people saw dissenting views when they scrolled through their feeds.

GUESS: And part of what we wanted to understand was whether the way in which people were shown content on these platforms affected their opinions and attitudes and beliefs and even downstream political behaviors.

SHAPIRO: Downstream political behaviors like volunteering for or donating to a candidate.

And can you say how often you found people in these studies actually changing their mind about something, thinking, well, I had been leaning towards voting for Donald Trump, but instead I think I'm going to vote for Joe Biden or the reverse?

PAN: We did not find that at all in any of these three studies.

SHAPIRO: Not at all, not even a small percentage.

PAN: No change in terms of vote choice.

GUESS: So, in other words, when we looked at whether the mix of content that people encountered and consumed and engaged with on these platforms affected what people then told us later on a survey or how they voted or whether they voted or the kinds of participation in the campaign that they undertook, we largely found very negligible impacts.

SHAPIRO: Very negligible. But hey; political views can be hard to change, especially with candidates as different as Trump and Biden. So is it possible that if researchers used a topic where positions were less entrenched, people might be more likely to change their views?

JUAN MORALES: Yeah. So what we did is an online survey experiment in which we varied the number of likes and retweets that people see on a particular message. And these opinions were opinions about sort of COVID policies.

SHAPIRO: Economist Juan Morales of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, did his study early in the pandemic. People were just forming their opinions about the right balance between public health and the economy. He and his co-researchers used social media posts that said things like wearing masks saves lives or time to reopen safely - those sorts of things.

MORALES: So imagine, now, that we show you a set of tweets, and all the tweets that are - let's call them pro-economy, have a high number of likes, and all the tweets that are pro-public health have a low number of likes. And then we show another group of individuals, and we show them the opposite. And then at the end of the study, we asked people, what do you think about closing businesses? What do you think about prohibiting gatherings?

SHAPIRO: So did a lot of likes and retweets make a difference?

MORALES: What we find is that on average, the answer is no.

SHAPIRO: Like the other studies, there are nuances and variations when you drill down into the findings. But when you look at the top-line conclusions, all of this research pretty much lands in a similar place. Journalist Max Fisher went through piles of these studies for his recent book.

MAX FISHER: I am the author of "The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story Of How Social Media Rewired Our Mind And Our World."

SHAPIRO: Is it possible to say just, like, yes, no, do social media posts change people's minds about things?

FISHER: So just looking at a post - no, not really. But interacting on social media, posting to a platform, getting feedback in the form of likes, shares and replies, posting again over many cycles - that has been demonstrated to - as something that can change your mind in ways that are very powerful, but also pretty narrow.

SHAPIRO: Whoa. So you're saying a person seeing social media posts might not be affected by it, but the person who's actually doing the posting might change their mind as a result of posting?

FISHER: Oh, yeah. I mean, the platforms are designed - I mean, you have to remember, if people don't post on social media platforms, they're just empty. So they are designed to make you feel a compulsion to post on it and to have a very emotional experience when you post and when you get those responses from other people on the platform - likes, shares, retweets. And that is something because it taps into your social instincts that - in any other context, we would call it a form of training.

SHAPIRO: Help me understand this because I might post to social media, the best part of a holiday meal is the side dishes, which is a belief I hold. And I'm posting it because I believe it. So how would posting that somehow change my opinion that side dishes are the best part of a holiday meal?

FISHER: Well, first of all, that's misinformation and you should be ashamed of yourself.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

FISHER: So if you are posting about how great side dishes are and you get a thousand retweets and 3,000 likes on that, you are going to feel this jolt of social affirmation that is way beyond anything that our brains have evolved for - right? - because our brains evolved for these very small communities. But in social media, we're in these huge communities. We get this instant feedback. And that - the scale of that social feedback will make you internalize that belief in the importance of Thanksgiving side dishes way more strongly than you've had it before.

SHAPIRO: So I won't suddenly become an advocate for the main course. But if my opinion that side dishes are the best had been a seven, I might become a 10. I'll get more dug in.

FISHER: And at the same time, if people start arguing with you - as I would, because you're egregiously wrong - that, actually, the main courses are the best part, then that back-and-forth and that interaction - because I would have lots of people retweeting, you know, my post getting mad at you; you would have lots of people liking your post getting mad at me - would polarize you much more strongly against main courses than you were before. And that gets to your question about, can social media change your mind? We're not going to change each other's minds. You're not going to believe that main courses are the best. I'm not going to believe that side dish is the best because of our interactions, but we are both going to hold much stronger versions of those views.

SHAPIRO: So here's the insidious part. Not only does posting on social media push our own views to the extremes.

FISHER: It will make your ability to empathize with people who have the other opinion drop down to a zero, which is not that relevant when we're talking about Thanksgiving. But you're talking about politics? Having a more extreme form of your preexisting views can be pretty consequential, and we are also going to feel much more polarized.

SHAPIRO: So the research shows that this entire social media cycle of feeling attacked by some and affirmed by others shrinks our ability to feel compassion for those who disagree with us, which raises a deeper question. If posting about current events on social media won't change someone else's mind, why do we keep doing it?

FISHER: So, I mean, part of it is that social media creates a compulsion to post on it, and this is something that has been proven in many studies. It's chemically addictive. But I think there's also a more human reason, that we are all looking for a sense of agency - I mean, especially when the news is really scary, when there's something really big and terrible happening, like the conflict between Israel and Gaza. We want to feel a sense of, you know, control, like we're doing something, we have some agency over what's happening. And when we post on it, everything about how the platforms work tell us that we're playing an incredibly important role, that we're doing something, that it really mattered.

SHAPIRO: So we post because social media makes us feel better until it doesn't.

FISHER: Right. And this is something they also show in studies over and over, where people feel really distressed about the news. That makes them much likelier to post, but then posting makes them feel more distressed. It often does not actually ease that sense of, you know, existential anxiety that led you to post in the first place.

SHAPIRO: It's a bit like scratching a mosquito bite. The impulse is understandable. The momentary relief feels good. But longer term, scratching that itch won't help you heal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.