Online Networks and Social Change

The dangers of online social networks enhancing political ideology and participation


This paper shows the links between online social networks and influence on political ideology. It explores this influence under the scope of shifting community types and thought leaders. Further to this, we explore the nature and legitimacy of political information shared through online social networks and finally how this interaction can lead to a rise in political participation. In essence we are able to see a shift of political influence from the political opinions found within traditional communities to a broader, online community. These opinions are formed through what’s shared within these online communities, information which has been shown to be potentially falsified or politically biased. Impacts of this are then explored under the context of political activism and participation, something which has also shifted in its nature due to online social networks.


There are many influencers in the day to day lives of a modern individual. From advertising to messages contained within media, we are continually being bombarded with influence to our ways of thinking and ideologies. The discussion ahead will focus on the various influences that Online Social Networks (OSNs) can have on the political ideology of the individual. It will delve into how such catalyst for influence has changed alongside the progression of society from traditional communities to online, networked based communities. The concept of influence spread by the few to the many will also be explored under a political context. There will also be discussion pertaining to the legitimacy of information and influence spread through these OSNs and the different avenues in which falsified and biased information can find itself being spread across vast networks of individuals. Surpassing the dangers that arise when discussing the notion of political influence through OSN interaction, we discuss the impacts such influence can have and how this culminates into political action.

Traditional Community Echo Chambers vs Online Social Network Echo Chambers and Political Homophily

The structure of community has changed alongside the technological evolution of modern society (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018). The idea of a traditional community, one that sits on porches and discusses the goings on within the relative confines of their area no longer really exists within the modernized world (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018). With the rise of OSNs, the modern social structure saw a shift from such traditional close-knit communities into broader, loosely-knit structures unbound by the physical constraints of geography (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018).

Ideologies and political beliefs of traditional communities were heavily influenced by an ‘Echo Chamber’ effect (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018). This is essentially a feedback loop wherein the traditions and opinions of the majority in the community were echoed back to that community thus limiting the diversity of opinions found within that society. The political beliefs and opinions that were echoed throughout these chambers of society generally tended to be that of a conservative nature (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018).

With the shift from traditional community structure to the digitally networked community that came with the revolution of OSNs, the capacity to spread ideologies and opinions was greatly increased. No longer was the individual bound to the ideological influences found within their community but instead capable of consuming the opinions and ideologies of a much broader network (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018). This potential for consumption of opinions from a widespread and diverse audience is not always realised however.

The traditional community has been traded for the OSN and while some of the ideologies manifested within the echo chambers of traditional community could perhaps be considered to be outdated and have no place in the modern world (Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018), they were at least kept confined to their community. The concept of a political echo chamber has not diminished with this change in social structure, it has in fact been able to reshape itself to fit with the OSN and can now reach much more sizable audiences without the constraints of geography.

While the echo chambers of traditional communities grew naturally and were glued together by the isolative nature of that community, echo chambers existing on OSNs require a different catalyst to hold themselves together. This mainly comes in the form of political homophily (Boutyline & Willer, 2016), the tendency for those who share similar interests to bond together, or, as the saying goes “Birds of a feather flock together”. Bringing those individuals who share common interests, in this case, political interests together into their own OSN community can lead to the creation of a digital echo chamber. This is mainly due to the nature of the social networking platforms these OSNs are built off of. They provide the ability for individuals to share one’s own opinions along with the ability to spread the opinions of others that they identify with. This combined with the element of political homophily will naturally create OSN communities that are continually digesting and sharing like-minded political opinions, in other words, an echo chamber (Boutyline & Willer, 2016) (Williams et al., 2015).

Just like the echo chambers of traditional communities, this creates an environment wherein there is little capacity for diversity of opinion and thus those opinions shared within the echo chamber proliferate and drive a much more consistent influence on the opinions and ideologies of individuals consuming them (Boutyline & Willer, 2016) (Williams et al., 2015). This concept has been found to be particularly true in conservative circles (Boutyline & Willer, 2016).

Hyperactive Users and Opinion Influence

With such large networks of individuals connected through OSNs, one would expect the majority of content spread across these platforms to be constructed from the many, but this is not generally the case (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020). There are those who are considered to be ‘Hyperactive Users’ (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020), users who’s OSN activity (Posting, sharing, etc.) well surpasses that of an average user. These hyperactive users control so much of the OSN space with posts rooted within their own ideologies and opinions that they become ‘Opinion Leaders’ (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020).

As the name suggests, these opinion leaders have the capacity to shape the perspectives and ideologies of those who are connected to them within their OSN (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020). This raises concerns considering the potential outreach of these opinion leaders as it generates a potential for a large sphere of influence to be created based off of the political ideologies of the individual, ideologies that, as we will discuss, can be wrought from misinformation and political bias. Furthermore, these ideologies may not necessarily apply to those that this individual is influencing as they may come from completely different contexts.

Within a tightly-knit traditional community, an influencer of political opinion and ideology was the echo-chambers of opinion within that community. The shift to loosely-knit, broader online social networked communities has seen this replaced by the few opinion leaders whose outreach surpasses geographical confines and potentially the political contexts that these confines come with. The opinion leaders have the potential to sit at the head of the digital, political echo chambers discussed previously, a dangerous notion when considering the interplay between the two.

The Nature of Political Information and Opinion Wrought from OSNs

With the capacity to shape and influence political opinion through the sharing of information on OSN platforms (Meraz, 2011), one must consider the nature of this information and its origins. This is where another danger is brought to attention as that information might not necessarily be true or it may be presented in a way which renders it with heavy political bias.

An example of this can be seen in the 2016 election wherein ‘Russian Bots’ flooded social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, spreading misinformation and politically biased information that aligned with a conservative, pro-Trump agenda (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020). Once these posts were seeded within the platforms, they were taken up by conservatives and spread through their respective OSNs, thus creating an exponentially increasing distribution network (Papakyriakopoulos et al. 2020).

Aside from the specific example found within the 2016 election, it has been found that OSNs are becoming more and more of a driving factor in shaping political opinions as compared to that of traditional media outlets (Meraz, 2011). The dangers of this can be seen when compounded it with the fact that when compared against such traditional media outlets, OSNs have been regarded to be the least credible source of information (Johnson & Kaye, 2014).

OSNs and Political Action

When political agitation reaches its boiling point, the impacted communities rise up and protest. This has been true for as long as society has existed and is an innate property to the functioning of an organized community. Modern protest, however, have significantly changed with the introduction of OSNs (Jost et al., 2018). Protests can utilise such networks to assist in spreading information on the logistical level (E.g., transport, discussion of police presence, etc.), the ideological level and as a means of providing updates to the state of the ongoing protest (Jost et al., 2018). Protests can have the ability to shape the “future balance of power” (Steinert-Threlkeld et al., 2015) on various different levels, from social reform to overthrow of city state.

As mentioned, OSNs play an important part on the ideological level of a modern protest, in particular, they are commonly used to spread the information and ideologies which become the spark of ignition for citizens to take up such political action (Steinert-Threlkeld et al., 2015) (Jost et al., 2018).

If one were to take this information and put it under the scope of previous discussions, they would be immediately struck by the implications. This is where the core dangers discussed above culminate into an impact that surpasses just the notion of influence to an individual’s political opinions, it breeds an impact that can potentially topple city states and manipulate social reform. Political movements that are flared to action based off of information that may not necessarily be true, spread through echo chambers wherein polarizing opinion that may contain truth are not able to be taken under heed, echo chambers that are potentially fueled by the contributions made by a few individuals whose contexts may not even be relevant to those who they influence. This is where the true dangers of political ideology enhancement through OSNs lay.


The main dangers arising from the political influence of OSNs are twofold and intertwined. The influence itself, wrought from misinformation or political bias and its ability to culminate into political action. The discussion above has provided evidence to both of these factors. It has sought to demonstrate how political influence on OSNs can originate from potential misinformation, political bias or information that has been fed through an echo chamber with no potential for polarization. Online social networks not only provide the capability to share political information, whether it be legitimate or not, they also provide a platform in which individuals can organize and participate offline protest based off of this political information. This incentive to participate can be generated from misinformation spread through untrusted sources. It could be spread through the voice of the few hyperactive users or it can be propagated through the echo chambers within an individual’s online social network. This capacity for a mass ignition to political participation was not possible prior to the advent of these online social networks wherein the political ideologies were mostly confined to the echo chambers of a local community. It is for this reason that this paper sits under the conference stream of ‘Online Networks and Social Change’ as it clearly demonstrates the capacity for OSNs to enable social change.

Reference List

A. Badawy, E. Ferrara and K. Lerman, “Analyzing the Digital Traces of Political Manipulation: The 2016 Russian Interference Twitter Campaign,” 2018 IEEE/ACM International Conference             on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining (ASONAM), Barcelona, Spain,             2018, pp. 258-265, doi: 10.1109/ASONAM.2018.8508646.

Boutyline, A., & Willer, R. (2016). The Social Structure of Political Echo Chambers: Variation in Ideological Homophily in Online Networks. Political Psychology, 38(3), 551–569.

Hampton, K. N. & Wellman, B. (2018). Lost and Saved . . . Again: The Moral Panic about the           Loss of Community Takes Hold of Social Media. Contemporary Sociology. 37(6), 643-                651.

Johnson, T. J., & Kaye, B. K. (2014). Credibility of Social Network Sites for Political Information Among Politically Interested Internet Users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(4), 957–974.

Jost, J. T., Barberá, P., Bonneau, R., Langer, M., Metzger, M., Nagler, J., Sterling, J., & Tucker, J. A. (2018). How Social Media Facilitates Political Protest: Information, Motivation, and Social Networks. Political Psychology, 39, 85–118.

Meraz, S. (2011). The fight for ‘how to think’: Traditional media, social networks, and issue interpretation. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, 12(1), 107–127.

Papacharissi, Z. (2011). Conclusion: A Networked Self (Chapter 15). In Z. Papacharissi (ed) A           Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites. Routledge.

Papakyriakopoulos, O., Serrano, J. C. M., & Hegelich, S. (2020). Political communication on             social media: A tale of hyperactive users and bias in recommender systems. Online        Social Networks and Media, 15, 100058.

Steinert-Threlkeld, Z. C., Mocanu, D., Vespignani, A., & Fowler, J. (2015). Online social networks and offline protest. EPJ Data Science, 4(1), 19.

Williams, H. T., McMurray, J. R., Kurz, T., & Hugo Lambert, F. (2015). Network analysis reveals open forums and echo chambers in social media discussions of climate change. Global Environmental Change, 32, 126–138.

10 thoughts on “The dangers of online social networks enhancing political ideology and participation

  1. Hi Jordan,

    It is quite by coincidence that I have just finished reading Joseph’s paper regarding how social media has played such a positive role in creating social change via the Arab Spring movement and the very next paper I read is yours warning us of the dangers of social media and its ability to spread lies and misinformation especially in political circles. Of course there are always two sides to any argument citing pros and cons and I certainly agree with the points you so thoroughly cover in your paper.
    Social media certainly has the potential to allow for unscrupulous groups and individuals to spread misinformation in the attempt to influence and mislead others but it is my hope that there will be enough users with the right attitudes and beliefs that can route out these misfits and troublemakers to ensure their efforts come to nothing or at least minimise the damage or the trouble they may try to cause. You hit the nail on the head when you mention how online social networks have dramatically changed the landscape and opened up discussions from a local community level to that of a global community level where misinformation could have far greater effects. I hope we all take heed of your paper and everyone does their best to limit the negative effects social media may have in todays’ world.
    Thank you Jordan for an enlightening and very interesting paper.


    1. Hi Bernie,

      Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed reading my paper!

      You mention that you “… Hope that there will be enough users with the right attitudes and beliefs that can route out these misfits and troublemakers to ensure their efforts come to nothing or at least minimise the damage or the trouble they may try to cause”.

      This is interesting and it leads on from the discussion Amanda and myself were having below about how best to actually deal with such an issue.
      My point of view on the matter is that it is perhaps best to ignore those who spread misinformation through social media in an attempt to make them think that they do not have an audience.

      I don’t know if you’ve read Luc Samuel Quevauvilliers paper, but he makes points around the fact that autonomous censorship for those who spread misinformation or even hate speech on social media does not work and in fact, he argues that it even enhances the ability for these perpetrators to do as such.

      So my question to you is, considering the platforms and their algorithms are unable to be trusted in dealing with this issue, and we as members of such platforms struggle to do so, can you think of any other method that could be employed to fight against the struggle of misinformation?

      Link to Luc’s paper:

      Thanks again!

      1. Hi Jordan,

        You (and Luc) make a very good point that I hadn’t really considered and by simply ignoring those spreading misinformation could be the most effective way in dealing with this problem. If these troublemakers don’t have an audience and no-one is interacting with them then it may deter them. I have just been having a similar discussion with Lauren Cherry and the problem with online bullying and your suggestion could be just as pertinent in that situation as well. At time it may be a little more difficult to ignore the bullying as it is ti discard the misinformation but I agree it would be very effective.
        Thank you Jordan for the link to Luc’s paper and I hope you are enjoying the conference. It has created a great space for so much discussion on a variety of topics that play a major role in our daily lives.
        Have a great day Jordan.


  2. Hi Deepti,

    Thanks for your comment!
    You raise a really good point, I think mentioning some of the key figures in this discussion would have been a great way to enhance this area.
    Thinking of it now though, I think one of the most striking examples of this can be seen under the BLM movement. I think a large contributor to the success and scale of this movement is the fact that so many famous and influential personalities showed support of it through social media and media in general. So many examples come to mind here, from Lewis Hamilton to Billie Eilish, the list is almost as long as the list of greatest influencers today.
    What do you think though? Do you think the success of the BLM movement could have been sustained and grown to it’s size without the support of these figures?
    Thanks again!

  3. Hi Jordan,

    This is a really thought-provoking read on a topic that is so incredibly relevant right now.

    My paper also explores how the structure of community has changed with communication technologies, as discussed by Hampton & Wellman as you note. I really appreciated how you compare the echo chambers created by traditional communities of the past with those of the present, with the additional potential for danger through that “mass ignition”. I’m starting to regret the omission of similar points I could have made in my own paper, now that I’ve read yours!

    I’m curious about your thoughts as to how these echo chambers can/should be combatted? For years when I’ve seen obvious misinformation show up on my Facebook feed I’ve usually responded with a link to the Snopes page refuting the arguments, but it seems that things have really become a lot worse lately and people are becoming more and more stuck in their erroneous beliefs. I’m reminded of an anecdote that Karena Tripp shared in the comments on her paper:

    “I once had an acquaintance helpfully send me some information full of lies about COVID-19. When I replied with a link to a fact-checking website, they replied “Yes, sounds plausible. A story that has obvious discrepancies and is corrected by Snopes might be a good way of putting people off the scent, don’t you think? A clever ruse.” At that point I realised that no amount of factual information will ever be enough to convince some people that they are being duped by misinformation.” – Link:

    Things are getting pretty dire if people will go to those mental lengths not to believe the truth.

    I think you may find my paper interesting, given the similarities in our topics, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you get a chance to read it. You can find my paper here:

    Thanks again for a great read, and all the best for the rest of the conference!

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      You raise an incredibly good point. I think that in modern times, with the sheer amount of fake or misleading information that is out there, it’s almost impossible a lot of the time to try and convince somebody to change their point of view. Especially somebody who is prepared to do any amount of mental gymnastics that it takes to avoid having their point of view changed.

      I guess this is the problem of echo chambers and those who latch on to the misinformation sometimes spread through them. A lot of the time this misinformation will include an almost pre-cognized rebuttal to the most obvious flaws in the article, almost as if the writer is aware of how ridiculous what they’re saying is. This rebuttal almost always seems to be something that is vague, non-factual and along the lines of ‘Anybody who disbelieves my points raised here is part of the problem’.

      You raise a good question though, how do we combat this? Honestly, a lot of the time when I have encountered such a situation wherein I’m refuting something that is so ridiculously untrue with facts that the opposing party is refusing to acknowledge, I simply give up.
      I realise now though the dangers of doing this as it provides an opportunity to reaffirm the misbeliefs of the opposing party. Giving them the sense that they have ‘Won’ the argument would only reinforce their belief in the nonsense they’re pedaling. This being the case, would it be better then to just not engage at all? Just like a preacher becomes just a man in a robe talking to himself when his congregation is taken away, does the power of those who wish to spread misinformation fade if nobody is seen to engage with it? Perhaps this could lead that person to think that nobody really cares what they have to say or that they have no audience and as such perhaps give them the impression that what they are saying, isn’t worth saying at all? What do you think? I’d be really interested to see your thoughts on this.

      Thanks again!

      1. Hi Jordan,

        I know exactly what you mean with just giving up – it often does seem so futile.

        You raise a really interesting point here, and I can definitely see where you’re coming from suggesting just not engaging, but I think there’s too many people who will be genuinely drawn in and believe, and it feels wrong not to at least provide a counterpoint so it’s there in the unlikely event they’re ready to see it.

        As someone who works in adult education, I tend to see this as a symptom of one of the most challenging aspects of our culture, which is this idea so many people have that to admit you’re wrong is shameful or weak. Challenging our preconceptions and being ready to admit when we’re wrong or just don’t know is fundamental to the learning process, but so many people are aggressively resistant to it. Here’s a great article which goes into that concept:

        So I think what we need is a culture that celebrates and promotes intellectual humility. It won’t really affect those willfully spreading misinformation, but it might innoculate the general public from receiving those messages uncritically. How to get there though… that will take a lot of work.

        1. Hi Amanda,

          That’s a very good perspective you’ve provided here.
          The point about our inability to go against our pride and admit we are wrong is perhaps the main motivator which fuels the fires of all of this.
          Like a lot of things, I think it comes down to less a problem with the technologies themselves (In this case, social media platforms), and more the behaviours and psychology of it’s users. There’s only so much that the platform can do to quell the tide of misinformation and hate speech being spread, it really comes down to the people spreading it and ingesting it to take a step back and be cognizant of where their opinions are coming from and why they believe the things they do.

          Thanks again for the discussion, it has been enlightening!


  4. Hi Jordan,
    I notice that you mention “many influencers” at the very start of the paper before going on to evaluate how social media sustain filter bubbles and echo chambers while also supporting online protests and political movements. I just wondered if you had come across any key figures in these protests or echo chambers, influencers who started off these movements or helped sustain them?

    1. Hi Deepti,

      Thanks for your comment!
      You raise a really good point, I think mentioning some of the key figures in this discussion would have been a great way to enhance this area.
      Thinking of it now though, I think one of the most striking examples of this can be seen under the BLM movement. I think a large contributor to the success and scale of this movement is the fact that so many famous and influential personalities showed support of it through social media and media in general. So many examples come to mind here, from Lewis Hamilton to Billie Eilish, the list is almost as long as the list of greatest influencers today.
      What do you think though? Do you think the success of the BLM movement could have been sustained and grown to it’s size without the support of these figures?
      Thanks again!

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