June 30, 2022

Social Media Misinformation Is Making Americans Less Empathic


According to new data from a recent survey conducted by the United Way of the National Capital Area, more than half of all Americans – 57% – said that misinformation on social media has influenced their empathy levels. In addition, 27% of respondents added they have even changed where they get their news from due to empathy burnout.

Apart from Gen Z, respondents from each generation said that Facebook is the social media app most contributing to their empathy burnout.

According to the researchers, empathy burnout takes shape when “a person is regularly expending much of their energy – emotional, physical, mental – to care for others to the point that they themselves feel exhausted.” Many can likely relate to those feelings.

“We posed questions about news events contributing to their burnout, characteristics of compassion fatigue, and coping strategies they turn to for relief,” explained Nedelka Phillips, senior vice president, for marketing and fundraising at United Way NCA. “Over half of Americans say that misinformation on social media has influenced their empathy levels.”

The fact that so many people now rely on social media as a news source is certainly adding to the problem – in part because it is filled with so much misinformation and even disinformation.

“QAnon, for instance, creates an army of people that deeply believe falsehoods and aggressively fight to assure their unbelievable truths are believable,” suggested technology analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.

“This is creating a level of conflict that is very troubling because the foundation underneath these untruths are weak and that creates insecurity with those that propose them and this insecurity is likely the foundation for the related increasing anger and escalations to violence when these beliefs are rightfully challenged turning social media platforms into cesspools of misbehavior and abuse,” warned Enderle. “Social Media, and especially Facebook’s, over focus on revenue is driving a world I doubt anyone working at that company wants to live in and this is a serious problem because it is working against the natural trend for the world to become more accepting and collaborative over time.”

Perhaps today, thanks to social media, you can also fool a lot of people a lot of the time – and the platforms are profiting from it.

“In effect, social media is helping to weaponize gullible people, not to accomplish any kind of broad objective, but instead to maximize revenue with the cost of creating a far more hostile and unsafe world,” added Enderle. “As a result Facebook and other services that knowingly allow this misbehavior to maximize short term revenues and profits are becoming an existential risk to the human race which will likely end badly for both our race and firms like Facebook.”

What Happened To Social?

An increasing missing element of “social media” is the social aspect. Instead, the platforms have become echo chambers of opinions.

“In the evolution of technology there has always been unintended consequences. Interestingly, for a medium that started out as a force for being more social – it now often seems like it’s tilting towards the ‘dark-side,’ and being a platform for being anti-social.” said Susan Schreiner of C4 Trends. “It’s become a hotbed for hate, fear-mongering and disinformation. Today, social media is mirroring an increasing coarseness in the way people interact with each other in-person. It’s as if people’s dark-side are hiding behind the veil of social media.”

While political intransigence and lack of collegiality, the pandemic, and the fear of uncertainty are contributing factors – social media makes it easy to attack someone or to act as a bully, without responsibility or consequence, warned Schreiner.

“There’s a rebellion against respect – and the attitude of ‘I can disagree, but do it politely,'” she suggested.

Politeness is certainly missing in most social media exchanges.

“Social media is giving permission for narcissism and people’s worst instincts and characteristics to just ‘hang-out’ without concern for others,” added Schreiner. “Social media has given permission to ‘me’ and ‘I’ taking precedence over ‘we’ and considering or respecting the feelings or viewpoints of others.”

Even with all of social media’s negativity, there still is hope to be optimistic but it will take work.

“It’s no longer enough just to click on Facebook or Twitter and blindly accept at face value whatever is being said. It’s not like in the age of broadcast when one could rely on three-TV channels and authorities like Walter Cronkite,” Schreiner noted.

“On some levels it comes down to the ‘mob’ versus personal interactions. It’s like tabloid headlines versus The New York Times or The Washington Post,” she warned. “While we saw lots of fear-mongering during the pandemic, we also saw on social media the kindness among strangers – with members in neighborhood groups helping each other or members in certain types of Facebook groups offering emotional support to those alone.”



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