Last April, states began to sporadically reopen their economies after weeks of being shut down.

The uncoordinated reopening caused chaos, according to Sinan Aral, director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. Why? Because Georgia, for example — one of the first states to reopen — pulled in hundreds of thousands of visitors from neighboring states hoping to get a haircut or go bowling.

Aral tracked Americans on social media as some states reopened and others didn't, and as people watched their social media feeds fill with images of people heading back outside, he said, they stepped out too — even if their state hadn't yet reopened.

Aral, author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt,” has used social media as a tool to gain insight into everything from pandemic reopenings to protests and politics. And core to what he’s learned is that “social media is designed for our brains,” he said.

Humans have an intrinsic need to seek out and process social signals, he says — something we’ve used to our advantage throughout history. But the invention of social media? It’s “like throwing a lit match into a pool of gasoline,” he said. We can’t look away, no matter the cost.

Three Takeaways:

  • Social media is immensely powerful, Aral says. The “tremendous leverage” it has to “influence opinions and behaviors in the physical world” can be captured for good or bad. How do we hang on to the good and scrap the bad? Aral says creating more competition could go a long way.
  • There’s a strange dance between real people tweeting fake stuff and fake accounts amplifying those tweets. That was clear in 2014, when Russians used social media to reframe the annexation of Crimea as an “accession,” rather than a takeover, Aral says. This changed its perception on the ground and internationally, as diplomats struggled to decide whether or not to intervene.
  • The Russian social media strategy in 2020 is “much more sophisticated” than it was in 2016, Aral says — and the U.S. intelligence community agrees. As platforms have cracked down on fake accounts, Russia has covertly encouraged U.S. citizens to “start and spread false propaganda and manipulative content.” Plus, they’ve moved their servers to U.S. soil, which makes them harder to find.