How Social Media Hijacks Our Values
And how to regain control
Social media, in all its forms, is just a set of tools. They can be used for the benefit or detriment of individuals, groups, and society as a whole.
When our values drive use of social media, the outcomes should be positive overall. When we compromise our values in using social media, it can lead to distressing outcomes. In far too many cases, social media causes us to abandon our values entirely. Service members and veterans may be especially at risk.
One of the greatest rewards of military service is a sense of camaraderie. Bonds are built through commitment to a shared purpose. As an Army specialist in the ’90s, I first experienced a training event meant to instill a shared purpose and camaraderie, the Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) .
An LRC is a series of challenges that can only be accomplished by a small team working together effectively.
They demonstrate the need for teamwork while pulling together a group of Soldiers to support each other through a leadership training course. I participated in and oversaw numerous LRCs during my Army career and always found them extremely valuable.
Upon entering the military, recruits share the purpose of safety and security of our country. Later, the shared purpose gets refined and specialized. At the team and squad level, it becomes training for and being able to execute a variety of specialized missions in a combat environment.
For units that deploy to combat, the bonds become stronger when actual lives are on the line. The shared purpose continues to be the mission, but also the survival of the unit and its members.
Many veterans will tell you, in combat, they rarely thought about “fighting for their country”; instead they were fighting and putting their lives on the line for their team and fellow soldiers.
Upon leaving the service, it is common to suffer from the loss of purpose and camaraderie. In some cases, the loss is severe and can contribute to depression and other mental health challenges.
Replacing the purpose and camaraderie is one solution and can be done by joining veteran groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or countless other organizations.
Many find camaraderie through social media instead of or in addition to joining organizations. Sites like Facebook allow service members to stay connected with former colleagues or they may find other online groups with shared purposes and interests.
Of course, millions of non-service members use social media to develop networks and join groups and organizations with common interests.
During the pandemic, some people’s only regular contacts outside their homes have been social media connections and may have helped them reduce the stress of loneliness and maintain their mental health.
Unfortunately, the strongest bonds — those providing a true sense of security and comfort — are not easily formed and are unlikely to grow through social media.
Achieving the strongest personal bonds requires vulnerability and trust. These bonds can transcend and may even be strengthened by tragedy or trauma, such as facing combat or other threats. They are also rare, even in the military. Many in and out of the military view vulnerability as a weakness rather than a strength, so they avoid being vulnerable at all costs.
The best leaders recognize the importance of trust built on vulnerability; thus, they demonstrate these attributes and foster them in their teams.
Elite teams in the military, such as those in special forces, are much more likely to have a culture of vulnerability and trust because their missions often cannot be accomplished without them.
Vulnerability and trust strengthen commitment on any team, not just in the military. Any group or organization can become stronger and strengthen member commitments through demonstrating and practicing vulnerability.
The most successful organizations and businesses, the most stable families, and the best performing sports teams are built on vulnerability and the trust it creates. Brené Brown explores this in greater depth in her book Dare to Lead and in her TED Talk.
In the absence of vulnerability, trust must rely on predictability. Team members trust they know what others will do. They may even trust they will be there for each other, but they don’t know the degree to which they can trust. That limits the sacrifices they will make and risks they will take for each other.
In addition, predictive trust leaves members open to manipulation by the leader or other team members and creates weaknesses that can be leveraged by opponents and competitors. Patrick Lencioni illustrates this more fully in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Vulnerability, on the other hand, allows everyone on the team to be themselves and take risks. They can openly live their values without fear anyone will ridicule or question them.
They feel safe and secure. They know they can be completely honest by disagreeing with and having different ideas and opinions from other team members including the leaders.
When predictive trust is all that’s available, we must be careful what we say and do. We protect ourselves by showing only what we believe others are willing to accept. We learn what will bring support and praise from others, especially those to whom we’ve made some sort of commitment.
In the absence of vulnerability and trust, bonds are formed through shared beliefs and ideas as well as shared biases. Then, the bonds are strengthened through egos. The members of the team build each other and themselves up by reinforcing those shared beliefs, ideas, and biases.
The ego is rewarded by a dopamine rush when we are “proven” right or when counter beliefs and ideas are “proven” wrong, even if only in our own minds.
Millions have turned to social media for a sense of camaraderie. They form bonds through shared beliefs and ideas, because showing vulnerability online is highly unlikely. Consequently, most bonds formed through social media depend heavily on ego; people must experience that dopamine rush.
The bonds may be strengthened through a shared purpose meant to feed the ego. Some in a group or network create a sense that action is necessary to further the shared beliefs and ideas.
They provide opportunities for that dopamine rush through actions meant to demonstrate a commitment to the group such as posting support for a cause, ideology, or person or attacking those opposed to a cause, ideology, or person.
Over time, the bonds built through ego may become stronger than real-life bonds, especially when in-person contacts are limited, such as during the pandemic.
People may fall under the influence of online groups at the expense of their own sense of self. In far too many cases, they may compromise or abandon their own values to avoid sacrificing their bonds with the group, even if it’s just a group of Facebook friends.
The result can be vicious social media postings in defense of or against an ideology, political party, candidate, or anyone supporting them.
They might include baseless or severely distorted stories and mischaracterizations or gross exaggerations meant to make someone or some group look evil. Worst of all, these posts replace what could be valuable dialogues for addressing shared challenges.
In other settings as well, we tend to gravitate toward those with similar opinions, ideas, and beliefs. The same for our choice of entertainment and news. This can create a similar echo chamber reinforcing our opinions, ideas, and biases without need of critical thinking. Worse, it can reinforce them without being filtered through our values.
Social media can be the worst in this aspect. It focuses the reinforcement without filters, context, or counterpoint.
In real life, hearing ourselves state something out loud may give us pause to consider if it is outlandish or is not in line with our values. We may have friends or acquaintances with somewhat or very different opinions and beliefs who will challenge us.
On social media, a sifting often occurs so there are few or no dissenting opinions being shared and few who will challenge what we say. Instead, those with whom we engage are likely to encourage us and give our ego a boost. When a dissenting voice does pop up, we will relish being part of the collective effort to crush it.
The greatest danger of social media is being manipulated by those who benefit from extreme rhetoric or divisiveness.
They can be masters at feeding the ego, so otherwise good people completely abandon their values and contribute to the chaos that is much of social media. Even worse, they will manipulate people’s values to strengthen their bond to the group. Followers become blind to the fact they are often doing exactly what they accuse “the other side” of doing.
We are all at risk of this. Once bonds are created, our ego will fight to maintain its dopamine supply. People who care about us may try reason and logic to get us to realize what’s happening and remind us to think critically and reflect on our values. We will quickly find flaws in their arguments or accuse them of trying to manipulate us.
We will welcome those from our social media group who attack the counterpoints and reinforce our ideas, opinions, and beliefs. In some cases, we will distance ourselves from or even cut off those who would counter us.
What, then, do we do when people we care about — people we know have a good heart — are caught up in groups with extreme points of view and opinions and who advocate for things we know are counter to their values? What do we do when these people allow their values to be drowned out by their egos?
First, we have to make sure we are not doing this ourselves. We have to reflect on our own networks and social media groups to ensure they are not compromising our values. We must analyze our own ideas, opinions, and beliefs and ensure they are aligned with our values and have not been hijacked by our egos.
While doing that, we have to realize how hard it is and how our ego is constantly reassuring us we’re doing nothing of the kind. We may have to seek people we trust who will be honest with us to help us be certain we are — or at least are capable of — being truly objective.
Then we have to consider: how could someone else have approached us to convince us to go through that reflection process? What could someone say to get us to do that? It is difficult when we choose to do it ourselves. It is much harder if someone else has to suggest it.
Consequently, the only real means of helping others work toward putting their values ahead of their egos is to be there when they are ready to begin that reflection. Tell the person, preferably in private rather than in an open forum, you wonder if they’ve fully thought through the stands they’re taking; you’re concerned some of their postings seem extreme.
Offer to have thoughtful dialogues about their ideas, opinions, beliefs, and values — not to change their mind or prove them wrong, but to help them validate their own views and actions.
In other words, we have to be vulnerable.
We have to show we are approaching these people with open arms and open hearts. We have to be willing to suffer their barbs without fighting back until they trust us, then we have to continue to hold back until they ask us to share our thoughts and opinions.
Only where vulnerability-based trust exists can fully open and honest dialogues occur; only then can people safely disagree and challenge one another on their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.
Absent that trust, disagreeing with or challenging someone means, in their mind, you are no longer objective; it doesn’t matter how many facts you have on your side.
We are prone to social media manipulating our ego and hijacking our values. We must consciously choose to live those values and to take them back when they get compromised, and we can only help others do the same.
We do that by living our values and being available when others realize they need help living theirs. We can’t do it by alienating them or creating barriers trying to change their ideas, opinions, and beliefs. We must demonstrate vulnerability as the path toward building and maintaining trust.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.