Facebook and the Third Person Effect'.

Author:Walther, Joseph B.
Position:Shoptalk: commentary

A number of prominent figures have called for some sort of regulation of Facebook--including one of the company's cofounders and a venture capitalist who was one of Facebook's early backers.

Much of the criticism of Facebook relates to how the company's algorithms target users with advertising, and the "echo chambers" that show users ideologically slanted content.

Despite the public criticism, the company has posted record profits. And billions of people--including more than two-thirds of American adults--continue to use the unregulated version of Facebook that exists now.

I have been studying the social dynamics of the internet for 30 years, and I suspect what's behind these apparent contradictions is something psychological. People know about Facebook's problems, but each person assumes he or she is largely immune--even while imagining that everyone else is very susceptible to influence. That paradox helps explain why people keep using the site--which still boasts more than 2 billion monthly average users. And ironically, it also helps explain what's behind pressure to regulate the social media giant.

The psychological tendency at work here is called "the third person effect," the belief that media don't fool me, and maybe don't fool you, but all those other people are sitting ducks for media effects.

Ironically, this dynamic can encourage people to support restrictions on media consumption--by others. If someone uses, say, a social media site and feels immune to its negative influences, it triggers another psychological phenomenon called the "influence of presumed influence." When that happens, a person worries that everyone else falls victim, and supports efforts to protect others, even if they think they themselves don't need the protection.

This could be why there are lots of Facebook users who complain about Facebook's danger to others, but continue using it nevertheless.

Even the Facebook-funding venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who wrote a book about how bad Facebook has become, may have fallen prey to this psychological irony. As the Washington Post reports, "despite ... his disgust with the worst crimes of social media platforms ... McNamee not only still owns Facebook shares ... he also still counts himself among the behemoth's more than 2 billion users. After all, McNamee acknowledges with a shrug and a smile, 'I've got a book to promote.'"

McNamee may think he's immune to the echo chambers and other online influences that, he...

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