Can social media change our opinions?


Written by: Heather Gillin (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: February 25, 2019

A study conducted by Dr. Michael Workman, associate professor of technology management, found that social media can affect bias.

“We found that when people are seeking new information about a topic, that social media can change people’s minds,” Workman said. “But if they have already made up their minds on something, say politics or religion, they mostly seek out information to confirm what they already believe.”

Workman initiated this study for a global financial company that restructured employee compensation from raises to graduated bonuses. Human resources sought to understand employees’ feelings about the pay change and how it would be received company-wide.

Using a technology called Natural Language Programming, Workman detected the degree of feeling and intensity in employee’s sentiments posted on blogs. NLP analyzes the relationship between words and their use to determine affect intensity, or how strongly they feel about a topic.

“If they use expletives that counts as an emphasis on what they are saying or if they use certain adjectives, then we could determine some of the co-affect intensity and whether they are for something or against something.”

First, employees were required to watch an unbiased, factual video about the compensation changes. After watching, Workman assessed that the video did change employees’ sentiments about the compensation changes. Then, they were encouraged to post about the compensation changes on a blog created by the company’s HR department.

After analyzing employee comments from the blog, Workman found that this form of social media did not change most employee’s minds.

“What we generally concluded based on the social media data is, if you have already made up your mind about something, then social media is not going to change it for you.”

However, Workman investigated further to find that individuals who are externally focused, people who ask questions like ‘what do people think about this pay change?’ were more affected by the social media commentary than those who are more internally focused and rely more on their own opinions when making decisions.

“We did find that people who are externally focused, those that tend to seek other people's opinions, were more statistically likely to change their opinion, based on what people were saying in the blog.”

Lastly, Workman sought to understand how social media influences people to take action for or against a cause. He classified users into three modes: minimal effort, moderate effort and maximum effort.

People that would click a button to sign a petition were classified as minimal effort. Moderate effort involved writing a message to HR. Maximum effort meant attending a rally for or against the compensation changes. If an individual took all three actions they were scaled at the polar end of activism.

Workman found that individuals who were for something were less likely to take stronger action than when an individual was against something.

“If people were strongly for something, they might take some mild form of action such as pressing the “For It” button. If they were strongly against it, they took more stringent action, including activism.”

Workman said a valuable lesson comes from this research in that social media users should educate themselves about the influences of social media and think critically about topics before taking a stance.

“We fail when we do not study the issue to understand its complexities to make an informed decision.”

Learn more about Dr. Michael Workman.