Cognitive Dissonance in the Age of Coronavirus

Coronavirus and the role of the social media algorithm – a personal viewpoint from Lucie Towndrow our Digital Content and Social Media Manager.

Coronavirus has changed the way we view the world. Life is no longer about the individual, but about society at large. Owing to this, there are now deeply divided opinions on what is safe and right for the many, and what individuals want and believe is best.

This is where cognitive dissonance – the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change – comes into play. Beliefs and behaviours while experiencing a world health crisis and global pandemic will not always align. They will chop and change, often contradicting each other.

Health is a very personal matter, and similar to the infamous vaccine debate, there will forever be people on opposing sides. The discourse around healthcare rarely runs smoothly and coronavirus is no different. In fact, due to increased time spent online, it’s heightened.

We all have our own set of beliefs surrounding coronavirus, but when we view something that doesn’t agree with them, we may experience cognitive dissonance. This can lead to feelings of anger, frustration, stress, anxiety or fear. This particularly happens when we realise that there may be an essence of truth in conflicting beliefs.

Owing to social media algorithms on the primary social platforms such as Facebook, these beliefs will often be mirrored on an individual’s social media feeds and strengthened by the content they are viewing daily.

In turn, this further deepens the divide between opinions, and it’s all facilitated by social media algorithms.

The content found on social channels right now does cover every side of the argument – but that doesn’t mean an individual would see all of it. In fact, due to social algorithms, they will likely only see content that they already agree with.

How technology plays a part

Combining the age of technology with a global health crisis opens up a minefield of opinions, at the touch of a button. The statements we make online are wrapped tightly in our beliefs around freedom, personal choice and quality of life.

Unsurprisingly, the statements we make online, often reflect the content we share or engage with. Each person will interact with content that mirrors their beliefs. Liking, commenting or sharing posts, videos or images that affirm their ideals. This, in turn, encourages the algorithms on social media to continue serving you content that you already agree with, further strengthening your viewpoint and keeping you in a virtual echo chamber.

If, however, you engage with alternative content that opposes your existing beliefs, you will start to see a more balanced argument, rather than only seeing what you already agree with.

According to the study ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ released in 2019, Users feel ‘discomfort from exposure to heterogeneity’ (diverse content) on social media. Users also ‘utilise selective exposure and affective behaviour to cope with the discomfort’ they may feel as a result of seeing content that doesn’t align with their views.

Cognitive dissonance, therefore, arises from exposure to opposing views on social media. The ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ study suggests that users, therefore, actively try not to view things that oppose their beliefs, because it brings them discomfort. However, in the interest of keeping things balanced – it’s important you do view varied content. Even if it doesn’t align with your opinions. This is how you ensure a rounded world view while still using social media.

Social algorithms

So, how does the algorithm work, and how does it keep you in the echo chamber? The algorithm has changed over time. Originally, social posts were ordered chronologically. Now, it orders posts based on what it deems relevant to the user. If you are engaging or viewing pro-government content around coronavirus, then this is the type of content you will continue to view and vice versa. 

Unless you actively try to engage with opposing viewpoints or ideas on social media, it’s unlikely you will ever be served that content, as Facebook or Instagram will not deem it relevant to you.

It is therefore important that you approach social media with an open mind. It’s not unusual to feel uncomfortable when viewing content you don’t agree with – but it is important to keep you balanced. With so much misinformation and fake news on social media, users have a responsibility to keep their content sources varied and check them for legitimacy and validity.

How can you tackle cognitive dissonance online?

  • Accept that some people will have opposing views to you, and you are likely to only see content that agrees with you because of the social media algorithm
  • Try to understand which conflicting ideas or beliefs make you feel uncomfortable and educate yourself on both sides of the argument
  • Be aware of your emotions as a result of viewing conflicting ideas and try to keep them balanced. If you are experiencing anger as a result of seeing an opposing opinion, do not post while your emotions are heightened
  • Accept the fact that cognitive dissonance is a normal part of life and that you may sometimes have to keep your emotions in check and choose the opinion that corroborates with your ideological position
  • Make sure to actively check sources for legitimacy and check facts
  • If you try to ignore facts because they do not align with your beliefs, it is likely to cause distress
  • Do not post opinions on social media that are not backed up by facts. Facts help people reduce cognitive dissonance (as long as they are verified)
  • Try not to let opposing opinions bother you if they are not backed up by facts.
  • Use social media as a tool to understand opposing views. Try not to be distressed by them
  • Try not to be reactionary or project negative emotions on social media

If you would like to learn more about the role of social media algorithms and how to use them to best advantage contact us today.