When you scroll through your Facebook news feed, the Twitter timeline or the Reddit front page, what do you see? Probably a lot of pictures, statuses, posts and articles. You probably know that if something gets 'liked' on Facebook, it will show up on your feed. If it gets liked a lot, it stays there. But did you ever consider how much you might be influenced by the number of likes or shares on something?
Consider this: On Facebook, you're scrolling through and you happen to see that three of your friends liked an article about why it's important to drink water. You agree that water is important, it seems obvious and you don't really give it a second thought. Later in the day, you're still on Facebook, but this time you see an article titled "Is soda really bad? What the bottled water industry doesn't want you to know..." It has 40,00 likes.
Now, you know that water is better for you. It's something you've heard over and over as you grew up. But 40,000 likes on a post? What did that author find out? Is there really a problem with the water industry? Is soda that bad? With that many people seemingly showing support for that article, some of these questions might occur to you. That article, with a viewpoint you hadn't previously considered, just might be worth a look.
This is strictly an issue with newer forms of media. Though news outlets have historically set the agenda by determining what would and would not be published, there has never been a way for readers to interact with those stories and decide which they felt were the most important until now. This can be good and bad.
It's hard to argue against increased audiences determining what they feel is the most important. News aggregators like Reddit are entirely based on system of "Upvotes" and "Downvotes," essentially a system of likes and dislikes, selected by the users. The more popular posts get pushed to the top, and what people don't like is quickly thrust to the bottom and out of anyone's mind.
Ideally, great content should be put out and people should decide which of those pieces of content really matter. Unfortunately, as soon as there was a way to change the agenda, businesses found a way to twist it to their advantage. There is a lot of spam on Facebook and one study found that one in 10 twitter accounts were fake. These are essentially programs created that can give extra followers to a promotional account, making it seem more credible, or accounts that ad likes to a posting, making it stick around longer.
It can be tough to tell when someone is taking advantage of that system, but the more important question is does it matter? Are you going to be more influenced by something that's liked or retweeted a lot compared to something that people aren't paying attention to, even if that small post is more in line with your current thinking?
(Discussion question based on a conversation with Klive Oh, a Merrill College lecturer doing research on this subject)