Braving Controversy Online: Social Media and Critical Thought

As I am learning to navigate controversy, I am increasingly aware that much of the ideological discussion surrounding controversial topics is currently taking place on social media platforms. Social media is a messy arena to brave controversy. To take a closer look at why the process is so complex, let’s start by thinking about Facebook as a business and as a platform that influences the way social conflict dynamics play out. Facebook’s main source of revenue is derived through advertisements and sales (e.g., businesses paying to list advertisements).1 Advertisement and sales revenue continues to increase with the amount of Facebook users—now over 2 billion—and the lengthy amount of time that most of us spend indulging social media. Facebook is a business with over 25,000 employees,2 and the company has a strong interest in making sure that you and I spend as much time as possible using the site. Our time—or, more precisely, the change in our perceptions and behaviors—is the product that is bought and sold on Facebook.3 For a Facebook financier, a “good” post is one that attracts the most attention. Posts with the most clout are brief (like pictures) and emotionally-charged (either intensely positive or negative statements). As these short, emotionally-charged posts flourish and cognitively complex posts are virtually obsolete, critical thinking languishes.

To evaluate whether critical thought can survive on social media, first I will review the way individuals allocate their attention on social media platforms. One of our basic human tendencies, to focus on the self, is amplified when using social media. Self-presentation sometimes takes place with automaticity (e.g., entering a party and smiling at the guests),4 but it can also be deliberate and effortful (e.g., preparing for a job interview).5 Generally, we are motivated to present ourselves in a positive light.6 Early on, children learn to conform to group patterns of social desirability and admired traits. Deviating from our automatic self-presentational habits (including our tendency to present ourselves in a positive light) requires significant and focused effort. Self-presentation biases can be particularly relevant to social media interactions, perhaps because of the juxtaposition between your thoughts, your feelings, your photos and positively-inflated snapshot representations of other individuals. When we are focused on presenting positively, it is more difficult to brave controversy—a feat that requires vulnerability and a bit of humility.

If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, then you have probably taken the time to change your profile picture. Profile pictures are the epitome of deliberate self-presentation: the careful art of selecting a picture that will influence the way social media friends conceptualize your existence. Self-presentation is a positive force when profile pictures are selected. Imagine if your friends’ profile pictures featured their worst skin abscess! Presenting positively simply makes sense. Nevertheless, self-presentation becomes more convoluted when we note that the language and style of Facebook posts reveals that social media is a place where self-enhancement indulgence is too normative.7 Social media platforms create a space where self-enhancement can be celebrated in quantities, times, and ways that are not possible, nor socially acceptable, during offline interactions (e.g., sharing a video of your latest music cover at 2am). A post with thoughtful content might flourish if it was not lost between a selfie and a Trump meme, both of which elicit automatic emotional responses.

If social media draws out our self-enhancing tendencies, why does research point toward the existence of pathways between social media and psychological distress?8,9,10 Part of the reason may be that social media users repeatedly experience private and public self-image threat on social media. Although private and public self-image threat frequently overlap, public self-image threat is more likely to revolve around the way other people might be viewing you.[^11] For example, receiving an angry comment on a post is likely to trigger public self-image threat, redirecting your thoughts toward the commenter’s perception of you and other users’ perception of you. Whereas, reading an emotionally-charged, controversial post is likely to trigger private self-image threat, redirecting your thoughts toward your own sense of failure or confusion even if no one else is aware. Interestingly, success expectancies actually increase the chances that the self-threat will be all the more wounding.[^12] In other words, if we create profiles and posts that magnify our sense of self, we are all the more likely to react harshly to our inability to meet these expectations.

Social media users also encounter public image threat via upward comparison. When scrolling through news feeds, upward comparisons can range from monetary comparisons (e.g., you have a nicer car than I do), to social comparisons (e.g., you have more friends than I do), to value comparisons (e.g., you received more “likes” and “loves” than I do, and therefore, you are more valuable than I am). Upward comparisons can have positive effects, especially when the comparison leads to proactive attempts to reach one’s goals. Nevertheless, excess upward comparison fails to translate toward prosocial behavior. Critical thought likely decreases with excessive upward comparison, as fear and anxiety take hold. When public, private, and upward comparison threats are combined with inflated pressure toward self-enhancement, the result is a cocktail of emotionally-laden, personified interactions that curtail critical thought. The subcortical, emotionally-dominant regions of the brain are activated, and this tendency is only magnified by the social psychological dynamics that social media platforms like Facebook inadvertently reinforce. That is part of why using Facebook’s home page is like wading through a flea market—you love those glossy knickknacks, and yet the wiser part of you wonders if you will be left with any quality items that are worth your time and attention.

Despite my reservations, I currently still use Facebook to brave controversy and think critically (albeit with periodic fasts). Although critical thought will not be a frequent occurrence, one might find other individuals who are devoted to a particular subject matter through private pages, groups, and messaging. Facebook is part of globalization, part of the incredible global initiative to use technology to network with people of all backgrounds and contexts. Facebook links people with events and creates conversations off of Facebook that may not be possible without the social media giant. That being noted, if Facebook fails to find creative ways to reinforce critical thought, I am concerned that the personal, social, and mental health repercussions that accompany the platform will outweigh the benefits. For now, Facebook will continue to be a popular tool, but most of the meaningful, braving-controversy conversations cannot possibly take place in the virtual, marketing atmosphere that Facebook designers chose to create.

  1. O’Neill, N. (2010, January 19). The secret to how Facebook makes money. Retrieved from, 

  2. Number of Facebook employees from 2004 to 2017 (full time). Retrieved from, 

  3. Lanier, J. (2018). Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now. Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. 

  4. Paulhus, D. L., Graf, P., & Van Selst, M. (1989). Attentional load increases the positivity of self-presentation. Social Cognition, 7(4), 389-400. doi: 10.1521/soco.1989.7.4.389 

  5. Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Ciarocco, N. J. (2005). Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful self-presentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(4), 632-657. 

  6. Schlenker, B. R., & Britt, T. W. (1999). Beneficial impression management: Strategically controlling information to help friends. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(4), 559-573. 

  7. Bazarova, N. N., Taft, J. G., Choi, Y. H., & Cosley, D. (2012). Managing impressions and relationships on Facebook: Self-presentational and relational concerns revealed through the analysis of language style. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(2), 121-141. 

  8. Chen, W., & Lee, K.-H. (2013). Sharing, liking, commenting, and distressed?: The pathway between Facebook interaction and psychological distress. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(10), 728-734. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0272 

  9. Seabrook, E. M., Kern, M. L., & Rickard, N. S. (2016). Social networking sites, depression, anxiety: A systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 3(4), e50. doi: 10.2196/mental.5842 

  10. Note that Seabrook, Kern, and Rickard (2016) along with other researchers also point out positive associations between social media use and mental health due to increased social interaction. My intention is not to diminish these findings. Instead, to provide potential explanations for the increasingly pessimistic findings concerning social media use and long-term mental health.