Media Consumption and Psychological Effects

Compared to today, consuming news and media used to be a social event – news would be watched together on TV, possibly discussed, and a shared reality existed.

Newspapers and radio may have different perspectives on events but could not – and still cannot – be contained in a filter bubble. The content of a newspaper or radio show stays the same, independent of who consumes it. In today's media landscape, information can be targeted to specific groups on social networks. Paid advertising can be used to decide what content users see – and which they don't. Target groups can be set according to their gender, age, political views and where they live. Facebook now allows users to see which advertisements an operator has paid for. However, this requires the user to be aware that targeting exists and to visit the page transparency section. The sheer volume of information, its rapid spread and targeting damages a sense of shared reality. Additionally, news consumption via messenger services is increasing, signalling a shift towards one-on-one discussions or closed groups. In Brazil, 53 percent of the population get their news through WhatsApp and 15 percent through Facebook Messenger. Facebook, with 54 percent is narrowly hanging onto its lead5. In India, 52 percent of people get their news through WhatsApp – meaning the messenger service is on par with its parent company Facebook, while 16 percent use Facebook Messenger to get their news6. Compare this to Germany, where 23 percent of people get their news through WhatsApp, 31 percent through Facebook and 16 percent from Facebook Messenger7. However, it must be noted that people do not tend to consume news from a single source, getting their information from a variety of channels.

The psychology of communication is just as important as media consumption habits. Because communication is more than a simple exchange of information, the researcher James Carey believes a closer look at the ritual meaning of communication is necessary. Communication plays a fundamental role in creating shared ideas8: a person‘s perception of themselves and the social groups they identify with significantly influence the interpretation of different types of information. We signal which social groups we identify with by sharing, liking and commenting – a mechanism strengthened by social media platforms. The sociologist Michel Maffesoli stated in his 1996 book ‚The Time of the Tribes‘ that in order to understand a person‘s behaviour, we must take into account the various groups that a person may temporarily identify with throughout the course of their day. Wardle and Derakshan argue that this describes and explains the online behaviour of users today, including why and how information is posted and shared. This tribal mentality explains why so many people share misinformation and disinformation online – despite having doubts about its accuracy; the predominant motivation being to signal which groups they belong to. To make matters worse, misinformation and disinformation often elicit feelings of superiority, anger or fear, increasing the likelihood of being shared. A shared emotional response increases the cohesion of a group, which explains why emotionally charged content is more likely to be shared, liked and commented on across all social media platforms. Disinformation often intends to widen societal divides, using an us vs. them narrative, be it between political opponents, or ethnic, religious or economic groups and ideas. The rapid spread of disinformation is a problem that fact-checking alone cannot counter. It takes a lot longer to debunk than to create false information. People who share mis- and disinformation may not see a correction in a timely manner, or at all. It is also doubtful whether an attitude based on an emotional response can be changed by confrontation with the facts. Wardle and Derakshan therefore proceed on the assumption that facts alone cannot be the solution. While facts address reasoning, disinformation triggers emotions – which are processed differently by the brain. We may be able to use social psychology as a tool, by developing mechanisms through which sharing mis- and disinformation becomes embarrassing in a social group. According to Alexander Ritzmann we‘re more likely to believe our own group and tribal thinking or the identification with a group – which can be as diverse as religion, political party or football club – largely determines what we believe to be true. Disinformation often speaks to values that cannot be changed by facts9. Someone who believes some nations to be better than others, that men are superior to women or that abortions should be banned is unlikely to be convinced by facts. Changing someone‘s values is a lengthy and complex process.

5 Cf. Newman et al. 2019. 6 Cf. Aneez et al. 2019. 7 Cf. Newman et al. 2019. 8 Cf. Carey, J. (1989), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, London: Routledge. p.16 based on Wardle and Derakhshan 2017. 9 Cf. Ritzmann 2018.