Could Removing Social Media Metrics Reduce Polarization?

By Darren Loucaides

Darren Loucaides
Credti: AFP/Getty Images

BBecause I write regularly about populist and far-right politics, I follow a bunch of people on Twitter who hold controversial views, both on the left and the right. I knew this might turn my feed into a waking nightmare, but I also thought following people with a range of views might give me a more balanced perspective.

As it turns out, research on this is inconclusive. Some studies show that being exposed to perspectives diametrically opposed to your own might actually harden your own views, and more than ever, people with differing views seem to inhabit entirely separate self-contained realities.

Clicking like in response to something is an emotional response; it does not necessarily endorse it as true or accurate.

When social media started to take off about a decade ago, millions of ordinary people suddenly had a public platform from which to spout their opinions. This promised to be a revolutionary democratizing force. But it has also meant that racist, sexist, and homophobic views became more visible than ever. We’re in an age of disintermediation, one where news, information, and content are accessible in an increasingly direct way through a variety of sources. We’re experiencing the tribalization of truth, where one group’s fake news is another’s axiom. It is contributing to deep social and political polarization.

And somewhere in the middle of all this, the “like” button has to take some of the blame.

Clicking like in response to something is an emotional response; it does not necessarily endorse it as true or accurate. A significant study by MIT last year found that fake news spreads more rapidly and gets more engagement than the truth. This creates a vicious cycle whereby misinformation with more likes is more likely to show up in our feed. As content grows more provocative, the reactions grow more tribal. And on it goes.

But if the incentive to win the likes arms race were removed, this downward spiral might run out of steam. Couldn’t we just get rid of the “like” button?

The business models of Facebook and Twitter are dependent on the kind of attention and engagement the “like” button encourages — yet they are also under enormous political pressure to address the spread of offensive and fake content. Instagram, the photo app owned by Facebook, has also already tested a version of the photo-sharing app without like counts. (The 500 million users who log into Instagram every day also make 4.2 billion likes per day.)

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has indicated that he is considering removing the “like” button altogether — the 10% most active Twitter users like an average of 70 tweets per month. “Right now we have a big “like” button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up,” Dorsey said at last year’s WIRED25 conference. “Is that the right thing… How do we incentive healthy conversation?”

But would such a blunt solution really solve the problem of online polarization? Though the language of the “like” button appears simple enough, its psychology is more complex. “Social media counters, whether reads, shares, likes, or emoji reactions, help us understand how others are reacting to content,” says Cameron Brick, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. “The counters indicate public opinion in what psychologists call social norms. These social norms can be descriptive, about what people believe, or they can be injunctive, about what people are supposed to believe — often with moral implications.”

While Brick doesn’t think that counters themselves are necessarily the main problem, he does think they exacerbate partisan rather than balanced content: “A click in outrage or righteousness is worth the same as a click in productive thoughtfulness, and it’s easier to provoke emotions than to do the steady, plodding work of consensus-building,” he says.

Likes and shares are addictive. Scientists have found that when we receive likes, the chemicals dopamine and oxytocin are released in our brains. Dopamine causes us to seek and desire, and its pull is so strong that it can be harder to quit tweeting than to give up smoking or alcohol. Oxytocin is the “cuddle chemical” produced when we kiss or hug. There are spikes in both when we use social media, studies show.

Chasing this rush can be irresistible. Like counts may seem helpful in seeing at a glance which content is best, but it may also be encouraging more divisive content and keeping us on the emotional rollercoaster of social media.

Until everyone blocks the metrics — or platforms remove them — it’s impossible to see whether ditching the “like” count would reduce polarization. “Ditching the ‘like’ button isn’t a panacea; the main issue is still the content itself and what becomes popular,” says Brick. “I support the early efforts of companies to flag content that is known to be false. We need incentives to support the sharing of productive, constructive content.”

“The numbers teach us what to post, they drive us to continue paying attention.”

Even so, the removal of the “like” button would be a useful step in the right direction. “Will it eliminate polarization?” asks Ben Grosser, an artist who created a browser extension that strips out all of the numbers from your social media interface. “Of course not. But will it have a significant effect? I think it’s reasonable to suspect so.”

Ultimately, the way we use social media would become more qualitative, less quantitative. And it wouldn’t be so bizarre to have platforms without likes. Facebook originally launched without a “like” button, which it rolled out in 2009, a few years after the company was founded. Twitter initially had a star-shaped “favorite” button instead of a heart-shaped like, a tool more leaning more towards archiving than approval — and CEO Dorsey has regretted this change.

In March, Twitter launched a beta version for its upcoming mobile app twttr, which is designed to make long, threaded conversations easier to read — and in this version, when a user scrolls past the parent tweet, there are no metric counters. After a big backlash from users fearing the end of the “like” button was imminent, Twitter execs played it down, while simultaneously admitting “they were considering it” at some point down the line. Even so, rumors of the “like” button’s demise have probably been exaggerated.

“The problem, of course, that Dorsey and Zuckerberg and everybody else are running into is they’ve built an entire business model in which metrics are a central component or central mechanism by which engagement with the platforms is driven,” Grosser said. “The numbers teach us what to post, they drive us to continue paying attention.” He points to Instagram’s recent trial in which like counts were hidden: “What’s the question they’re asking with the test? The question is: How much less or more money?”

Getting rid of the “like” button could have a helpful impact on our present polarization. But until platforms can find a way to eliminate it without losing money, it’s probably not going to happen. Social media is still very much a numbers game.