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A Second Look: Shaping Public Opinion

Ahmed and his clock
Ahmed and his clock. Source:

By now, most of the world has heard the story of Ahmed Mohamed. On September 14, 2015, this high school freshman brought a homemade clock contraption, complete with a ticking timer, to school. A teacher who thought the device was suspicious reported it to the principal, who then called police. Police questioned Ahmed for about ninety minutes, whereupon due to the inadequacy of his responses he was taken into custody briefly and then released. Social media quickly pounced on this story as an opportunity to both support Ahmed through his ordeal and to rip police officers and school officials. The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed quickly became trending in the aftermath to discuss the incident. Mark Zuckerburg reached out to Ahmed, and President Obama even invited the boy to the White House.

However, many of the stories proliferated across social media in the early stages after the incident were simply propaganda pieces lacking facts and substance, written not just to convince people to support Ahmed, but also to portray officers negatively. The unfortunate consequence is that many were swept up by the strong rhetoric and even worse, others verbally attacked the police officers and school officials who were just carrying out their duties.

Incidents like this are proof of the fact that we are all guilty of forming opinions too quickly. We often form an opinion based on what version of events we hear about first. Psychologists call this first impression bias. Just like we are more likely to remember the first word on a shopping list, we are also more likely to give credence to the first thing we hear in a particular story. This in itself is not harmful, but when coupled with another psychological effect known as mob mentality, the consequences are dreadful. Mob mentality refers to when people are influenced by their peers and contacts to adopt certain behaviors, trends, or ideas. Together, first impression bias and mob mentality can lead to group polarization, a phenomenon whereby initial opinion, especially when backed by others, becomes even stronger.

These ideas are important when we analyze the role social media has in masterfully moulding public opinion about an incident or idea. First, media companies quickly take advantage of first impression bias to gain readers, writing heavily biased articles that are short, attention-grabbing, and controversial. Many people do not take the time to look at the issue as a whole and analyze all the facts, or, if the story is still developing, suspend judgement until other perspectives have been revealed. They instead read these heavily one-sided articles, or articles that try to guilt readers into believing one side over the other. These consumers then unknowingly spread what they think is their opinion — actually the opinion of mass media conglomerates — via various social media platforms, thereby “infecting” others. This is compounded by mob mentality. Like a virus, one side of a specific issue will spread very rapidly and take over before the other side even has a chance to effectively present itself.

Having a one-sided public can lead to unfortunate consequences. One’s entire worldview can be shaped by one strong opinion. For example, if one has strong opinions that the police officers involved in the Ahmed incident were being excessive and racist, one’s entire opinion on police’s overall role in American society is negative. It may even cause aggressive behaviors in front of officers. In this manner, such ignorant and narrow mindedness based on an uninformed propagandized opinion is detrimental to one’s overall worldview.

It is important to note that the other side is most often still heard. However, it is most often seen as just an afterthought by people who have already made up their minds. Other times, though, the other side is crucified so quickly that it does not even have time to defend itself. After all, group polarization is at work here. Through these mechanisms, the strong impact that social media has on people, especially younger demographics, can actually have a profoundly negative influence.

While social media certainly does a great job of keeping people in the know, much of the information that is circulated is either strongly biased, sometimes even false altogether. But Facebook and Twitter’s trending sidebars are some people’s main source of news, which is better than having no source of news at all. However, the ease with which the system can be manipulated to influence masses is disturbing.

The larger issue with the Ahmed clock incident is not whether Ahmed or the police did anything wrong, or if this is an example of Islamophobia, but the effect social media and headline news can have on influencing people without presenting all the facts. If it is possible, it is certainly important to know the exact details before forming any strong opinions. It is quite impossible to look at things with a truly unbiased perspective; we all have our preconceived notions based on our own experiences and traits. What we should watch out for, though, is taking just one side of a story without considering the other, or drawing from just one news channel. In this era of social media prevalence, we must take everything with a few grains of salt.