How social media accelerates groupthink

“I’ve been gone. Now I’m back!” Those were the plain words of Lewis Hamilton who had taken a social media hiatus after a dramatic Formula 1 season last year.

As someone who lacks knowledge of F1 and its circuits, but tracks the online space daily, it was tempting for me to reach conclusions based on the opinions of Twitter users.

According to the analysis by enraged fans of Hamilton, Max Verstappen used a loophole during a stoppage in the race to change his tyres and then benefited from a controversial decision by the stewards to easily overtake a defending Hamilton and ultimately win the 2021 F1 championship title.

Twitter experts weighed in again, when they called out KFC on its statement that it could not buy potatoes from Kenyan farmers because of ‘quality issues’ despite the fast-food giant running out of fries.

The two events are indirectly connected. Society is grappling with the increased role of social media. Central to the understanding of the effects of social media is the issue of group dynamics. There is a reason that ideas or opinions—even mistaken ones—catch fire on social media or in popular culture: groupthink.

New research co-authored by Berkeley Haas Asst. Prof. Douglas Guilbeault has shown that it is easy for groupthink to emerge in large groups. The research also illustrated how easily people’s opinions can be swayed by social media—even by artificial users known as bots.

In groupthink, the quest for unanimous opinion can override our ability to objectively consider other views. In an era of social media and accountability, organisations are at a crossroads on how to deal with groupthink, and those that do not manage their response to divergent viewpoints face a reputational risk.

To begin to address this issue organisations should resist the temptation to fire away on the keyboard when emotions are heightened and avoid getting enveloped by virtual firestorms. The essence of dealing with groupthink especially on social media when opinions are polarised is to remain calm and not lash out.

The key to defying groupthink, especially for organisations, is being proactive with a plan rather than simply reactive. It becomes difficult to voice your perspective during a crisis when you are unprepared. Without anticipation and effective communication planning you might respond in anger, illogically or even make basic mistakes rather than with a considered and tempered approach.

Remember, there is always a group who will disagree with you even if you are right and have laid down all the facts. Just as people will disagree with Lewis Hamilton’s loss. In fact, take a leaf from Hamilton’s book: take a step back, let the tumult subside and when you decide to re-engage, let your actions speak louder than words. Witness the glint in Hamilton’s eye when he finished third in the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday – after Verstappen failed to finish.