Categories In Media

Of social media and negativity biases

Human beings have what is known as negativity bias. This means that they are generally more responsive to negative stimuli than positive ones. In simple terms, negative events, words, and actions have a bigger impact on us. We tend to dwell on them more often and remember them more clearly. Psychologists have used the negativity bias to explain traumatic events and their long-term effects but I want to look at it from the context of how we use social media.

Social media allows for openness and information exchange at an unprecedented scale. Information is now readily available and so are views and opinions galore. We have seen the rise of influencers, pundits and opinion leaders, at both a micro and macro level, who, if they are not followed, are at least well known in their communities. Their thoughts on subjects as diverse as politics to the characteristics of a gold-digging woman are a magnet for audiences with a never-satisfied thirst for what is interesting. Some of them choose to remain anonymous and others don’t but amongst them are those who feel the need to spread negativity almost as much as they need to breathe. Not the kind of negativity that attempts to highlight ills for the betterment of our society, but the bullying kind, dangerous kind, the divisive kind, and the destructive kind.

The social media streets are becoming mean y’all and more and more people are leaving certain platforms to “detox.”  #ZimbabweansMustGo is one of the trending hashtags that successfully earned my annoyance. It was tweeted and endorsed by a number of embittered South Africans who were “tired of Zimbabweans taking our jobs.” In such instances, these opinions only distract from the actual causes of the problem. Other examples involve social media influencers exposing other media personalities’ dirty laundry in public. The list goes on and on. Unconstructive arguments and counter-arguments are now the norms. However, whoever says that social media is the problem is mistaken. A medium is just that, a medium. It’s the people who use the medium that often determine the kind of impact that it has. The medium only gives its users the opportunity, many times anonymously, to expose what is at their core, their thoughts, and feelings, and it satisfies their craving for attention.

Purveyors of negativity often retort, “well, if people don’t like my opinion they can simply unfollow/block me.” While statements like these are uttered as a justification to constantly share their opinions, I think there is some merit in them. I believe what often feeds and empowers negative energy is the attention we pay to it. Why do we keep following said persons? Why do we actually care what they have to say on such and such a matter? Could it be our negativity bias that keeps drawing us to them? In journalism studies, negativity is an actual news value. If you want your content to be considered newsworthy a lil’ negativity will help. Let’s face it, we are fixated with it. Out of the woodwork comes like-minded who support controversial opinion leaders and then they are those who vehemently oppose them in the comment section. Both types of people fuel the flames. Social media may humble some people but not people who deliberately choose to provoke so no amount of correction will make it better.  Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter recognize this and have started adjusting their algorithms to block hate speech.

Hopefully, one of these days those who like to spread negativity and toxicity will come to realise the amount of social harm they are causing. Meanwhile, we need to learn not to become fixated on the negative, and use these platforms in a positive manner.

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