Social psychology studies the way people act in social situations, but Elizabeth Cohen considers herself a “social media psychologist,” someone who studies the way people interact on social media.
She spoke with Managing Editor Jennifer Gardner about her work and how social media influenced those who voted in the election.
Q. What is something you are studying right now?
A. I’m working on a research project trying to figure out how Internet memes have maybe reduced our stress during the election. There have been a lot of polls going around saying people have been really stressed out during this election, like losing sleep and having more contentious relationships than usual. People are seeing each other’s political conversations on social media and stuff. Maybe social media highlights our disagreements, but I think there are some things about social media that might bring us together, and so a colleague and I are putting together a research project to study what happens when you show people bipartisan memes.
Q. How can memes bring people together from opposite ends of the political spectrum?
A. It just gives you an opportunity to laugh. Like Saturday Night Live, we’re wondering if memes might reduce our stress a little bit, and also if the exposure to memes reminds us of our common identity as Americans. But we’re curious if it depends on whether or not a Hillary supporter or a Trump supporter shared it or not, and if it only works if someone who is like you shares it. It could mean that memes have this potential but only work if people whose views you agree with share it. What we would like to find is that even when somebody with different political ideologies than you shares one, it can make you feel better that you can both laugh at the same things.
Q. Other than memes, how can we use social media to voice our political beliefs?
A. A lot of times people will get into arguments on Facebook and sometimes they’ll even unfriend people, and so Facebook and other social network sites are kind of bringing people into more political conflict than they maybe were used to. What we were interested in though, is why. What is the difference between the person who decides to engage in a political debate, and not? Specifically, these more negative types of interactions. We’ve found that the people who respond, even though you might think they respond because they were concerned about what the post means for them, it turned out they were more concerned about how it influenced other people.
Q. Can social media have an effect on our political viewpoints?
A. People think that people are using social media to change people’s minds, but really the reason people go on political rants on social network sites is to get reassurance from people who are like-minded. So if I go on a rant about how Bernie is the greatest guy in the world, I want you to like it because it reaffirms my identity. But let’s say that if I see you have a network of friends that I, for whatever reason, think is going to be more influenced by my post, it is my concern about you influencing their beliefs that is going to motivate me to get involved in the conversation.
Q. Should we avoid social media when it comes to politics?
A. I actually think Facebook and social network sites are a good place for people to get practice articulating and figuring out their own opinions. I think in one way, these platforms allow us to voice our opinion and kind of get a better understanding in our head of how we feel, but the whole point and reason that all of these things have like buttons, shows how much we use these tools for affirmation and for reinforcement of our ideas. I think that’s probably the biggest motivator.