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Panelists Share Perspectives on Social Media’s Impact

As social media becomes increasingly integral to everyday life, four Harvard professors discussed its impact on individuals’ identities and relationships at a panel event Monday.

Panelists including Law School professor Yochai Benkler, Berkman Center fellow Judith S. Donath, Medical School professor Michael O. Rich, and Kennedy School professor Todd T. Rogers gave their perspectives on social media in a panel moderated by Government Department Chair Jennifer L. Hochschild and organized by Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior initiative.

Benkler discussed the phenomenon of “fake news,” delineating two contrasting psychological theories about how humans consume information. According to Benkler, one camp believes that people are rational truth-seekers, unintentionally led astray by falsehoods they see on social media, while the other argues that people intentionally seek out information confirming their worldview and ignore contradictory evidence.

Benkler also discussed positive ramifications of social media, including “the ways in which social media has successfully enabled decentralized political action” from the Black Lives Matter movement to the Arab Spring.

Donath explained her work on an evolutionary biology theory called “signaling,” which analyzes “what keeps communication honest enough to function.” Social media embodies a constant balance between honesty and deception, she said, and ultimately, social media feeds become constructions of how people want to present themselves.

Rich, a pediatrician, discussed the impact of social media on children, citing statistics that alarmed the crowd in William James Hall.

“Building a social media profile is a coming-of-age ritual,” Rich said, “15 percent of kids age eight to twelve have social media...70 percent are girls, and...it disproportionately affects those of lower socioeconomic status.”

These children, according to Rich, spend on average nearly eight hours per day on screens. In post-panel questions and interviews, both audience members and the other panelists expressed disbelief and concern at the statistics.

Rogers, a behavioral scientist, explained how social media could motivate individuals to react to the activities of their communities. Studies have shown people are more likely to vote if they see that their friends have already voted, he said, or become dispirited with their own work if they are overexposed to exceptional work from their peers through social media.

Benkler praised his fellow panelists after the event, emphasizing the importance of the “diverse aspects of the same socio-technological phenomenon” and the “remarkably wide image of the range of concerns and the range of observations.”

While all four speakers identified concerns with social media, some said they were optimistic, too: “Social media has a real potential for changing [and] democratizing the world, for reaching out to those we’ve been told are our enemies and getting to know them as real people,” Rich said. “To show our true selves, our authentic selves.”

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