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WVU expert examines social media’s role in Capitol mob

CHARLESTON — An expert believes that government and big tech need to come together to look at the role social media played in creating the atmosphere that led to Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol Building by extremist supporters of President Donald Trump.

Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor in communications studies at West Virginia University, studies the psychology of social media in pop culture, as well as emotional responses to media.

Cohen believes in the positive aspects of social media, such as connecting family and friends, the sharing of memories, or providing communication during a disaster. But social media can also provide an avenue for misinformation, an echo chamber where users only receive news they’re likely to like and share, and a way for fringe groups to organize.

For Cohen, social media is like any other tool. It’s the user that can either use the tool for good or for harm.

“There’s two sides to everything and people that can use social media for wonderful purposes can also use it for nefarious purposes the same exact way,” Cohen said. “They make it easier for people in these extremist groups to recruit other people. I think it’s a mistake to say that this would never have happened without social media. I think actually it could have happened even in absence of social media, but social media certainly makes these things happen a lot easier.”

Cohen likened the social media phenomena today to newsstand tabloids, like Weekly World News and the National Inquirer: papers with sensational and sometimes made-up stories and conspiracies.

One of the differences is that while many would snicker at the headlines, browse the front page, or even pick one up to read, those papers only affected a small group who happened across them. Thanks to social media, those views are more and more in the mainstream and available to a mass audience.

An example is the QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges that the nation’s political elites are involved in a pedophile sex trafficking operation. Several QAnon supporters were part of Wednesday’s illegal entry into the U.S. Capitol Building, including — according to media reports — a woman who was shot trying to enter the building.

“You didn’t see something that was published in a tabloid becoming mainstream,” Cohen said. “Whether you believe in it or not, we’re all talking about it. Conspiracies have reached a level of prominence. That’s regardless of whether or not people subscribe to them. We’re all talking about them.”

Trump has spent the last several months pushing conspiracy theories through social media that the 2020 election was rigged in former vice president Joe Biden’s favor, that there was massive voter fraud involving Democrats, Republicans, voting machine companies, and even the government of Venezuela.

Because many social media platforms use algorithms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — users often get pushed content aimed at getting them to click the next thing, then the next thing, creating a echo chamber.

Instead of seeing news as it breaks, users often receive slanted or inaccurate information based solely on what interests them.

“The algorithms are a huge problem,” Cohen said. “When you’re on YouTube and you watch one video that seems fairly credible. And then the next video that pops up is about the same topic. Maybe it’s a little bit more extreme, but it seems equally as credible to you. And then you see the next video that’s recommended to you by the algorithm and it looks the same.

“The point is YouTube is able to send you things that it understands resonate with you,” Cohen continued. “I don’t think a lot of people understand that the news that’s pushed to them is not necessarily pushed to them because it’s the best news. They’re really just getting it because YouTube wants you to keep watching YouTube and it’ll show you anything to get you to keep watching.”

Some have called for removing federal protection for content producers on the internet, known as Section 230, while others have called for anti-trust actions to break up Facebook and Google. Cohen is not sure what the correct answer is for countering social media’s bad influences, but she believes the government and Big Tech need to work together to find a solution.

“At the end of the day, our policies should reflect our values,” Cohen said. “I think it’s something that requires some sort of a conversation involving legislation, because ultimately that’s why we make laws. Because we were trying to uphold and protect our values. We need to have a conversation with our public officials about what values we care about. And then we can figure out how to communicate that to the social media companies.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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