“I was excited to connect the Harvard community.”
That’s how Mark Zuckerberg recalled the night he started Facebook during his 2017 commencement speech at Harvard University. He went on to tell the graduating students that “to keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.” From this, it is easy to infer that Zuckerberg saw his purpose — and, by proxy, Facebook’s mission — as connecting people.
But it seems that that purpose hasn’t been fully realized. While it’s true that Facebook and the platforms launched in its wake — such as Instagram, which it acquired in 2012 — connect people to new individuals, ideas and causes, social media sites also connect people to influencers, a consequence that seems to largely overshadow the original purpose of genuine connection. Instead of fostering community, Zuckerberg has facilitated cults of personality.
Influencers on social media undermine the essential components of a strong community: equal footing among members; a diversity of thought, backgrounds and passions; and a shared purpose. By virtue of their platform, influencers can silence dissent and direct their “followers” to do just that: follow them in a unilaterally charted direction.
Zuckerberg can fulfill his stated purpose and help save our languishing democracy by kicking influencers off of their algorithm-reinforced pedestals. As they’re currently set up, many social media platforms are the antithesis of a democratic forum: Some voices are amplified to such a degree that they drown out any dissenters or skeptics. This amplification is a business decision.
Social media platforms aim to draw in as many users and, consequently, as many advertisers as possible; amplification of certain voices that draw the most attention helps social media companies on both fronts. That’s why, rather than each user having an equal voice and an equal chance to deliberate, some users — influencers — have extensive freedom granted to them by the platforms themselves to steer the conversation.
Research from sociologist Damon Centola reveals that, without influencers, the congregation of random individuals via social media platforms can actually serve to moderate conversations and forge common ground. In other words, groupthink and extremism, among the other problems associated with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, aren’t inherent to those platforms; instead, they are tied to the intentional promotion of influencers.
When Centola and his colleagues brought Democrats and Republicans into ideologically homogeneous small groups, or echo chambers, something startling happened. Though surrounded by partisan pals — Democrats in their blue circle and Republicans in their red one — the groups managed to become less partisan after talking with one another about polarizing issues such as gun control and immigration.
“All groups independently moved toward opinions that were closer to the opinions on the ‘opposite’ side of the political spectrum,” Centola notes in a 2020 opinion piece for Scientific American. The key to this outcome was “egalitarian” rather than “centralized” networks. The latter is the product of networks that revolve around influencers, who exert undue influence over the thinking of the rest of the group.
In influencer-free networks, however, everyone is an equal and exerts a similar level of influence over everyone else. That’s what enables even an echo chamber to foster moderation; new ideas and opinions can be spread without being checked or modified by an influencer.
Limiting the destructive force of influencers won’t be easy. Though a diminished role for influencers would align with Zuckerberg’s purpose, it wouldn’t fit with Facebook’s bottom line nor the financial interests of its competitors. Consider how Facebook has diligently worked to profit from its influencers’ content deals on Instagram.
On the other side of the screen is another barrier: Millennials and, to a greater extent, members of Generation Z have come to regard “influencer” as a career path, suggesting that they may have a vested interest in keeping the “job” around. Research conducted in 2018 found that nearly a fifth of 11- to 16-year-olds in the UK wanted to be a social media influencer when they grew up. Parents of these aspiring influencers reported that fame was a chief motive for their children. I’d venture to guess that this wasn’t the purpose Zuckerberg had in mind for Facebook, but it looks like that’s what his platform is currently driving at.
Our generational challenge is to restore our ability to collectively solve problems. It follows that our purpose must be to identify a shared purpose. As things stand, in the world of influencers, the rest of us are followers rather than co-creators and collaborators. Online and offline, we’ve come to trust in a few and question the majority.
In a society where fewer than four in 10 American young adults think most people can be trusted, moon shots and D-Days are beyond our collective capacity. Social media, believe it or not, is capable of bringing us together and exposing our shared purpose, but first we have to end the reign of influencers.