Social Media and the Groupthink Problem

Social Media and the Groupthink Problem

By: Guest
June 8, 2012

Social media and the groupthink problemI recently read a book by Jonah Sachs called Winning the Story Wars. In the last chapter, called “Living The Truth,” Sachs writes that Irving Janis, who discovered the “Groupthink” phenomenon, noted that “groups quickly reach consensus decisions with amazing disregard for obvious warning signs that they are on the wrong track. Extremely cohesive groups, oriented around a strong leader, will ignore or punish dissenting opinions.”

As a person who navigates the online waters quite often, this resonated with me. Many times I see “truths” being passed around that simply do not make sense. Recent examples include things like, “Asking about the ROI of social media is is like asking about the ROI of your mother.” A lot of people passed around this idea as a memorable soundbyte, and because it was started by an influential person (in this case, Gary Vaynerchuk), the group surrounding him passed it around without seeming to really question it. In the online world, if you do speak out against things like this, you are likely to be dismissed with a “haters gonna hate” retort.

Let’s analyze the groupthink idea a bit more closely and see how it impacts social media.

Quick Consensus Decisions

In 2011, Chris Brogan announced that he was unfollowing everyone on Twitter. This seemed like a rather sudden decision, and given that Chris had always built his online presence around engaging with people, it also seemed rather surprising. What was even more interesting, however, is how the groupthink phenomenon came into action. Shortly after Chris wrote his post, Darren Rowse, Michael Hyatt, and several others did the exact same thing in short succession.

The argument of who to follow back on Twitter, how many people you should follow back, and all associated conversations probably will never be solved in such a way that everyone is satisfied. Everybody has to find his or her own way to make sites like Twitter work for them.  What was odd about the “great unfollowing of 2011” is that so many people in the same demographic (what one might call “A-Listers”) did the same thing at right around the same time. Could this have been because they knew they’d get support from others who had just done the same thing?

Obvious Warning Signs You’re On The Wrong Track

I’ve seen a lot of cases in the online world where the groupthink mentality has carried people down a path that’s clearly not going to be beneficial, and yet onward they trod. Perhaps the best example is the constant berating of marketing tactics that do not involve social media. How many posts have you seen that claim email is dead, advertising is dead, direct mail is dead, or everything is dead? I’ve seen quite a few without even really looking for them. Factually, there are plenty of warning signs that this is the wrong track, most obviously that people are being convinced to lay all of their eggs in the social media basket while also being told that nothing in social media can be measured.

Unfortunately, a lot of the people who support the “everything but social media must go” attitude are pretty influential in the online world. They have that “cohesive group” that Janis talked about. And so, even though there are warning signs everywhere, the journey into trouble continues.

Ignore or Punish Dissenting Opinions

How many times have you visited a blog, scanned the comments, and seen words along the lines of, “Well, haters gonna hate”? Sure, there are sometimes trolls, and dismissing them makes sense. In fact, completely ignoring them is usually the best way to diffuse their power. But what about someone who’s trying to point out flaws in the argument? What if someone is disagreeing with the post but they have good reasons for doing so? What if someone outlines all of the reasons why the post may be misdirecting people?

Are they really haters, or are they simply trying to have a conversation?

Unfortunately, the parallels between groupthink and social media have created an environment in which it’s nearly impossible to conduct a civil conversation while also disagreeing with a community leader, whatever that community might be.  Perhaps you have seen situations where a blogger “calls out” one person only to have that person’s community rush over and “hate” on the blogger because everyone is loyal to whomever their community leader might be. This creates some of the ugliest situations in the online world, but I think a lot of it can be traced to this concept that “dissenting opinions must be punished.”

Think for Yourself

The easiest way to get out of this groupthink rut is to think for yourself. Of course that seems slap-me-in-the-face obvious, but clearly it’s easy in the online world to get carried away with what’s popular or trending at the time. Agreeing or disagreeing with a certain person can get you a lot of attention (negative or positive, but attention is attention online). One must overcome the desire to get some “buzz” and prioritize thinking based on his or her own belief system. This system should not change with the ebb and flow of the online tide, should not be overly formulated by a “leader,” and should not be used to ride the coattails of someone who is moving on up in the world. It should be everyone for him or herself, in an ideal world.

Why do you think the groupthink phenomenon is so prevalent in the world of social media? Was it always so or is this something new? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Margie ClaymanMarjorie Clayman is the director of client development at Clayman Advertising, Inc., her family’s full service marketing firm. Margie has recently published an e-book called The ABCs of Marketing Myths.





Lead image by snailsareslimy via Creative Commons

  • Anonymous

    I encounter this not only on Social Media, where it’s almost as rampant as highschool, but on a non-profit board I sit on.

    I must say, Chris’s Twitter Unfollow Experiment – which is what he called it, meaning he didn’t know if it was the right thing at the time – totally changed the way I managed my Twitter stream. Before that all I heard was follow everyone back. I think Chris was an example of NOT doing Group Think. I didn’t unfollow everyone, but it made me ‘clean up’ my list so those I follow are really meaningful to me.  I have fallen in love with Twitter since then… but that’s an aside to your actual point.

    Yes, Thinking For Yourself is rule#1 to find ‘success’ (however you measure that) on Social Media.  Sadly, it appears to be rare…. and really does remind me of highschool where too many people follow the A listers blindly.  We all laugh at our own highschool behavior. Perhaps as Social Media matures, we’ll do the same.

  • Anonymous

    I encounter this not only on Social Media, where it’s almost as rampant as highschool, but on a non-profit board I sit on.

    I must say, Chris’s Twitter Unfollow Experiment – which is what he called it, meaning he didn’t know if it was the right thing at the time – totally changed the way I managed my Twitter stream. Before that all I heard was follow everyone back. I think Chris was an example of NOT doing Group Think. I didn’t unfollow everyone, but it made me ‘clean up’ my list so those I follow are really meaningful to me.  I have fallen in love with Twitter since then… but that’s an aside to your actual point.

    Yes, Thinking For Yourself is rule#1 to find ‘success’ (however you measure that) on Social Media.  Sadly, it appears to be rare…. and really does remind me of highschool where too many people follow the A listers blindly.  We all laugh at our own highschool behavior. Perhaps as Social Media matures, we’ll do the same.

  • Hi Katy,

    I would agree with you that Chris was bucking the trend – I was more mentioning how SO many people quickly followed suit. One could say the same thing about the Google Plus phenomenon. One person declared it was going to be the best thing ever and then many other people followed. Did they really believe that or were they riding with the tide? Hard to say. Hard to know.

  • I don’t think it’s new; I think it’s just the nature of social media makes it easier to see it. Transparent, if you will.

  • I don’t think it’s new; I think it’s just the nature of social media makes it easier to see it. Transparent, if you will.

  • Hi Amy –

    I agree with you there. In “real life” it’s harder to trace peoples’ actions, especially over a long period of time. Online, those footprints are a lot more visible (and they stick around longer, too).

  • Anonymous

    Hello there Margie, it’s me, Amy.

  • My favourite line? “How many posts have you seen that claim email is dead, advertising is dead, direct mail is dead, or everything is dead?” It made me LOL!

    What works for one might not work for another, so when people broad-stroke-brush across tactics, saying they’re dead or “won’t work”, it just makes me shake my head. The important thing is to find what DOES work and DO it.

    I have two thoughts on “groupthink”. One you nailed is that people want to be part of the “in”/knowing crowd. Not necessarily jumping on a bandwagon, but truly believing that if the “experts and gurus” say it is so, it must be so. Naive? Trusting? Well-intentioned? Perhaps so, but like my mom used to say: “If everyone goes jumping off the bridge into the water are you going to too?”

    The second is that ideas, concepts, truths, gossip, rumours and facts travel online at lightning speed and pick up momentum so fast that it’s easy to think that something is “true”, simply because it’s so pervasive.

    My thoughts? Same as yours. Think for yourself. Be true to yourself. Take things in stride by injecting a healthy dose of questioning and/or skepticism before jumping off the bridge and splashing into cold water with all the others. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Kevin Kirkpatrick

    I heard an interview with Neil Young this week who has been vocal in his music for years against War which arguably is correlated with Groupthink. One would think that Neil would be one of the last people to say that War is as complicated as Love and who is he to say somebody’s motives in going to war are right or wrong. Neil went on to say that for him most of the wars he has seen and protested against seemed bad to him. Very mature and independent thinking we all need a dose of from time to time. 

    I personally wonder about the motives of those leaving twitter and FB for g+? 

  • It is always easy to swim with the tide so people are hesitant to go against it. This reminds me of conversations I have had where people said that anyone who had 1000,000 followers or more on Twitter should be considered an expert user.

    They didn’t want to talk about who those followers were, whether they were human, bot or bought. They didn’t talk about conversion rates on call to action.

    I think a lot of people fall into the trap of believing what they read online. If they see it on a site that looks reputable they automatically assign more value and credibility than it might deserve.

  • Great thoughts, Kaarina. Thank you!

    I agree – there is certainly palpable pressure to respond/reply quickly online. Like, within minutes. There’s that pressure to be the one who breaks the news, not the one who just spreads it. Given that pressure, it isn’t so surprising that people find that reliable source (in their eyes) and use them as a retweetable foundation. Anything they say can be retweeted with a fair amount of confidence that it’ll hold true. And there lies a great danger.
    I also am not a fan of the broad paint stroke. It does good for nobody except maybe the blogger in terms of traffic. Yuck!

  • G+ is quite the hot topic. Some people swear by it while others swear about it. I am not a huge fan but have been debated many a time about how I’m missing the boat. Time may have to tell on that one. It is interesting how the launch went though, and it’s interesting to watch who vocally supports it and who does not.

  • I agree Jack. Again, it comes back I think to the speed thing Kaarina mentioned. How can you tell if someone is influential at a glance? Well, numbers are a shortcut. That’s part of the whole debate over Klout as well. Sadly, I feel a lot of these numbers are highly misleading, and people are being led astray on some things. Knowing how to use Twitter well is not the same thing as knowing how to run a business or be a good parent. It’s just…not! 

  •  Having worked at newspapers for 20 years, I can tell you first-hand, that people have always behaved like this. It just wasn’t as easy to make that visible to the public. 🙂 (My first few years I answered phones for the newsroom. Wow.)

  • Unplugging is a great way to aid the think-for-yourself prescription. I unplugged last weekend and found myself wanting to throw out some random thoughts just to see who would give me a thumbs up or pat on the back. Having my thoughts just fall in the forest without making a sound took a little getting used to. After about a day, though, I was forgetting where my phone was and eating my meal without the desire to snap a picture of it.

    The instant gratification of being valued or having your random thought be honored is addictive and, I think, feeds that group think mentality. If we don’t take a step back every now and then, we’ll find ourselves all running off a cliff without a squirrel suit.

  • Very nice post and well written. I try to challenge the status quo, think for myself, allow dissent, while modeling optimism. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain the balance.

  • James Barraford

    Thank you for the wonderful article. I’ve noticed the trend over and over on Twitter, to a lesser extent on Facebook, but to a troubling degree on Google+. I love using Google+, but there is a cliqueish feel that gives the power users a much greater level of groupthink dominance than anyone should have. I’ve lost people in my circles for expressing this view, including several of those very power users. I’ve addressed it in several of my stories and it doesn’t go down well at all. As someone writing on social media, I had to make a decision whether to address similar or not and accept any consequences. I applaud your willingness to take on a sensitive subject. 

  • Very well stated. There is a definite freedom to unplugging. You realize how tense you are when you post something. Will someone troll you? Will your post get a trillion likes or comments you’ll need to respond to? How can you fit all of that into the busy day you’ve got planned?

    Taking a breather makes the online world shrink – that can be a VERY good thing sometimes 🙂

  • It is indeed! Thanks Dale. Glad you liked the post! 

  • Thanks James. I’m sorry to hear that you had negative repercussions from voicing a sensitive opinion – that’s the “dismissing views that disagree” problem, I think. It’s extremely easy to dismiss one person when you’re standing beside 5 people who will back you up. If those 5 people are, to you, super important and/or super powerful, all the more reason to dismiss someone who feels differently, right?

    It is definitely a clique feeling. I rebel against that kind of environment too. I have ever since about fifth grade. Sad we’re going back there, huh? 🙂

  • Judy [email protected]_croome

    So true! I’m currently experiencing the phenomenon with two 1* reviews I’ve done on Amazon – a DVD (Religiousity) and a book (Elder Rage) Despite my making it clear that the book/DVD were not to my taste the supporters of the author / actor are ” hating” like crazy. It’s annoying and two products I would rather have forgotten as molehills have been turned into mountains because I.’m feeling pressurized into removing the reviews just to give myself some peace and quiet! But if I do remove them, then that undermines my other reviews. Why is it that people can’t think for themselves and, more importantly, respect other’s different opinion without taking it personally ?

    Judy Croome
    Johannesburg, South Africa
    Author of ” Dancing in the Shadows of Love”

  • Anonymous

    I think this ties in to a increasing conformity creeping in to how we express ourselves. I see online a tendency for people to all start using the same idioms, nom, squee etc. It’s not just a bandwagon thing as much as the online environment encouraging a drive towards standardisation. You see it in things becoming so popular they become massively dominant. And other options then get dismissed as out of date, old fashioned or just wrong.

  • JC Piech

    I think this article is spot on, and a necessary reminder. I do think groupthink in social media is inevitable, because whatever happens in the ‘real world’ will naturally be mirrored in the virtual world. Just today I read a blog post which I disagreed with quite strongly. I thought about leaving a constructive comment to express my points of view, but I saw that all the comments already there were very positive and encouraging of the statements made, and so I thought it wouldn’t be worth it to say what I thought, because I’d just be dismissed as being ‘negative’. On the plus side, people who are able to think for themselves are usually able to see past groupthink fads, and whilst they may collect fewer online followers, the connections will perhaps be of better quality, based on real conversations, rather than group ‘belonging’.

  • Anonymous

    In the FWIW category, I leave comments all the time disagreeing if I don’t share a POV. And you’re right, there are often a lot of “great post, I love this, this is awesome” comments to wade through. But I try and not let that influence me – not if I’m passionate about whatever the topic is. Sometimes, for me anyway, it’s just impossible to say nothing. Or to let certain thoughts go unvoiced.

    But I get what you’re saying – I totally do! Thanks for coming by!

  • Sorry to hear that Judy. I often lament that civil disagreement seems to be an endangered species, especially online. I have had a lot of strong disagreements with people where no negativity was spread (so far as I know), no curse words or “hater” words were tossed out…it was just a good conversation. And I think everyone actually enjoyed the opportunity to flex those debate muscles. It’s too bad that the online world makes us so hyper-sensitive, but that’s what we were talking about down in the earlier comments – when you unplug for a day or two you realized how tuned in you are to what people think about you. We don’t realize, I think, how much we are perpetually impacted by the feedback we get in web 2.0 world.

  • Oh, NEVER censor yourself. If you start censoring yourself I really believe you start losing a piece of yourself. The online world is meant to be a place where everyone has the right to his or her own opinion. If we start giving in to the tide, then we really are helping to build it up, you know? With no contest, those folks are not having anyone challenge their views, and it might make them grow to hear another perspective.

    That said, there are ways to disagree that are not negative. I could easily write another post about negative ways to react to the groupthink problem. For every “hater” comment there is a “tool” or “D-bag” comment. Those aren’t constructive either, and it’s much easier to dismiss comments like that as meaningless – because really they are. But a debate regarding something you believe in? No way. I’d never swallow that.

  • Margie, you know that this is a topic that I return to again and again, often with fiery words. 😉 

    Communities form around central organizing principles – it’s how we identify as belonging and how we filter out perspectives contrary to our own preconceived notions about self, etc. This phenomenon has its roots in human psychology and it does serve some practical purpose, but, as you noted, can easily go unchecked and devolve into total group think. It’s a tricky thing to balance, I think. 

    We’ve often commented back and forth that the velocity at which information is disseminated online is staggering – and that also means that content that originates from people of prominence (both online and off) tends to move even faster. [email protected]:twitter often says when discussing influence measures like Klout, what is really being measured is one’s ability to move content through the stream. 

    I’ve also discovered that the vast majority of people who, when challenged on a point of discussion, tend to dig in their heels and get defensive – and that’s utter crap. If honest, truly open dialogue and discussion isn’t welcomed in an online space, you’ll not find me there. There are some people (and I’ll not go into specifics of name) in our shared network who I find intolerable in discussion, because they simply won’t concede their point. Frustrating. 

    As a writer, nothing infuriates me more than a ‘yes man’ sort of comment. I want to be called out, challenged, and taken to task if my logic is sloppy or my writing unclear – and I have the same expectations of others with whom I engage in debate.

  • Anonymous

    Yet another reason I love Jason Konopinski. #thatisall

    PS Oh, I second his thoughts here. Disagreement makes the world go ’round. It makes discussions better. It facilitates learning. It allows points of view not otherwise considered come to light. “Yes men” … they suck. And contribute nothing. Not. One. Thing.

    But sometimes, in my opinion, these plays on the part of some of the “power elite” that often start these groupthink situations are but cries for attention. So that the adorers will once again come forth, worshiping at their feet. And that, well it drives me a little batty, too.

  • When are we drinking beer together? This must soon be decided. 

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. Get on it, willya?

  • Agreed, Jason. It’s like I said below, I think there’s room on both sides of the conversation for people to be a bit more civil. I certainly don’t mind being disagreed with, but do you have a good reason or are you just after attention? I certainly have no problem disagreeing with another person (in as civil a way as I can) but then I don’t want to be called (or be made to feel like) a “problem child.”

    Civil discourse. Learning. That’s the opportunity the online world has created. And yet we seem to be traveling in the complete opposite direction. It’s all about being right and more than that, being right *first*. Yuck!

  • Helen

    Here’s what I think happens a lot. A new social media platform comes along and people jump on the bandwagon. But as we know, each platform has its own quirks in the way it’s used, both technically and socially, so there’s usually a learning curve. A certain number of people produce “how to” ebooks and courses on how to use it, and they become the gurus of that particular platform. Pretty soon theirs is seen as the “right” way and a huge number of users are reluctant to deviate.
    It took a while, but I’m happy to say I’m over that way of thinking. But the fact that millions of folks are not is a contributing factor to the group think problem.
    Thanks for this thought provoking post, Marjorie.

  • JC Piech

    Yes, you’re right! I think on that particular occasion I just didn’t have the energy to rock the boat or anything. I was just like ‘ergh, I can’t be bothered’. But I think in future I will try to be more vocal if I really believe some disagreement will be beneficial. Thanks! 🙂

  • JC Piech

    Thank you Marjorie 🙂 I think I needed to hear that! I do sometimes shy away from saying what I really think, but I know how useful it is for me when someone challenges what I think, so why should I shy away from doing the same for others? I always keep the other persons feelings in the forefront of my mind, so I know I will always try to voice my disagreement in the most respectful way I can. 

  • Hi Helen!

    I agree – Google Plus was really the first chance I had to observe this phenomenon. Twitter was already about 3 years old or so when I joined in, so I already knew who the power users were. But with G+ and to a lesser extent Quora, and now with Pinterest, you can see the mad rush to be the first and the best. The problem, I believe, is that with each new platform there is less and less care as to what might be the *best* knowledge to pass forward. For example, everyone is talking about how Pinterest can be a great tool for your business but very few people are talking about the spam problems or the affiliate link problems that have been reported. If I wasn’t immersed in the online world, or if I hadn’t experimented with the platform myself, I’d assume I was just plain backwards for not going full throttle. If I were to voice that fear there’s a good shot I’d be called a “hater.”

    I think there will be a point where people will notice this pattern and say, “Hey, what that person said turned out to be the polar opposite from what turned out to be true.” I just fear that a lot of people/companies are going to struggle in the meantime.

  • Follow me back on the Twitterbox, and I’ll DM you some ideas. Jerk. xoxoxoxo.

  • Anonymous

    How is that even possible? I’m going to punch myself in the face.

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  • Groupthink is prevalent in EVERY industry and Social Media is just a microcosm of society. I actually took a Small Group Communications class and we studied in depth. One of the biggest CASE STUDIES was Nixon’s “Kitchen Cabinet” and Water frigging gate. 

    I think the best thing is to take care of your own Social Media garden, weed what you don’t like, water/feed what you do. The most extreme seems seem to come from people who need a LOT more help than they can get online and if people want to blindly follow shiz gonna happen. Sadly there are a LOT of vultures and predators out there. I think after enough time most figure out who/what they are dealing.

    I used to think I needed to tell people now all I have to do is wait and most people show their true colors.

    Anyways you are golden Margie. Always enjoy your writing and love that you did it here on Shellys badass blog!

  • Anonymous

    I like it. It makes me think. Harder.

  • Thanks Jessica!

    I agree – group think is nothing new. It seems to be a problem that has haunted humanity forevah. But Social Media makes it easier to track – easier to mark when people change their minds. I think that’s part of what makes it more of a dark cloud for some folks. Your words and thoughts follow you around. In writing 🙂 

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  • Excellent article, Marjorie. What you identify is common to human nature. Social media will bring out all personality types. For me, I respond to thoughtful and quality posts such as this. Likewise, I only ReTweet the same, as I want to share it with my Followers, whom I have cultivated based on their own quality inputs. I shall do the same with your piece. When I select who to Follow, or who I allow to Follow me, I sort wheat-from-chaff but also try to avoid my own groupthink by including some diversity of view, without wasting time with those with whom I know I shall never agree. In a sense, then, like attracts like. And if somebody we respect expresses a thought or takes an action, it will gain our attention and respect. We may or may not copy them, but if we do, I don’t think that is negative groupthink (if you will) but rather a building of knowledge by learning from others. Hope this makes sense.

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