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Social Media and Solidarity: Why should business care?

Datum:07 maart 2023
Social media platforms capture an ever-growing share of individual users' attention.
Social media platforms capture an ever-growing share of individual users' attention.

The prevalent use of social media (e.g., Twitter, Instagram) is frequently regarded as a key driver of the increasing divisions and polarization in societies all over the world. As illustrated in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” social cohesion and democracy are increasingly at risk as social media platforms capture an ever-growing share of individual users’ attention. Social isolation, addiction and body dysmorphia, which can ultimately lead to suicidal behavior, are also implicated in the mediation of social relationships by these digital platforms. 

Furthermore, social media serve as launchpads for echo chambers that foment hate speech, conspiracy theories and outrage. As people are disproportionately drawn to emotionally-charged speech, the content ranking algorithms that orchestrate what content is presented to a given user, tend to serve up offensive messages.  Thus, social media capitalize on a perpetual, self-reinforcing cycle of promoting bigoted speech: offensive messages à more clicks à more advertising revenue à learning algorithms that disproportionally serve up bigoted speech. Social media thus play an influential role in producing “alternative facts”, incivility and social division. In short, these technologies increasingly put solidarity at risk.

Solidarity refers to feelings of devotion towards known or imagined others and a moral commitment to trust one another. It reflects individuals’ willingness to cooperate with others to survive and prosper as a group. As its etymological root suggests, solidarity promises solidity in the bonds that hold societies together. It is a form of social capital that has been taken for granted and whose value is diminished in a capitalist economic systems that prioritizes profits over people.   

Yet, solidarity is an organizing principle on which numerous organizational forms and institutions depend. Co-operatives, trade-unions, fair-trade organizations and the sharing economy (e.g., crowd-funding) are examples of organizations that reflect such “solidarity economy” principles as human dignity and the egalitarian distribution of decision rights. Furthermore, institutions that enact the welfare state – e.g., schools, hospitals, health insurance companies and pension funds – rely on feelings of ‘one for all, all for one’ among citizens/customers.

Business has historically benefited from solidarity as an unacknowledged, free resource, benefiting from social peace and trust as they sought to accomplish uninterrupted operations, efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, organizations ranging from governmental institutions to private businesses should care about what social media use does to solidarity.  

Research suggests that issue-specific forms of solidarity that fuel protest movements (e.g., Schools Strike for Climate, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter), benefit from activists’ social media use.  However, the universal form of solidarity -- that is, a sense of mutual duty to aid each other qua humans -- is at risk with social media use. Importantly, it is exactly this form of solidarity that global challenges like the climate change and the refugee crisis require.  Producing universal solidarity will demand effort, and what such an effort looks like and what role business can/should play in it, is far from clear.

Author: Ulrike Schultze -

On 17 March 2023 at 2.15 p.m., Dr U. (Ulrike) Schultze, appointed Professor of Business Information Systems at the Faculty of Economics and Business, will be holding her inaugural lecture entitled: Social Media and Solidarity: The good, the bad and the ugly. Click here to read the full invitation.