How social influencing works

One of the best protections for online youth is awareness of how other people try to influence them – here are some of the ways….

by Anne Collier

Now that our kids’ entire circles of friends, in their school and beyond, are in public spaces on the Web, blending the details of their personal and social lives with messages and images from people with all sorts of interests and intentions – from finding friends to promoting a band to sexual exploitation – it’s a good idea for them to get a handle on how people influence each other.

“One important foundation for making safe and responsible choices online is ensuring that you are, indeed, the one who is making the choice,” writes Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, who has researched this in the context of teen social-networking for a book she’s working on.

Of course, sometimes the results of social influence are good: for example, in encouraging, for example, tolerance or conservation, Nancy explains. Other times, a result can be destructive. “Grooming,” the term used by law enforcement people to describe how a sexual predator influences a child toward an in-person meeting (see “How to recognize grooming”), is one stark example. “Virtually all of the Internet’s risks … are grounded in the negative impact of social influence,” she writes. It’s always empowering to understand how social influencing works – kids can see influencers’ techniques for what they are and socialize more safely and confidently, online or offline.

Here are six basic influencing techniques, described in much more detail in a chapter in Nancy’s forthcoming book (preprinted with permission here):

1. Rule of reciprocity. An “extremely strong basic norm,” it goes: If someone gives you something, you’re obligated to give him something back. Something in return for gifts given (a sexual predator’s tactic), but also the reason why charities put address stickers in their solicitations for support. Sub-tactic: “rejection, then retreat.” The manipulator makes an extreme request; it’s rejected; the manipulator then responds with a smaller request, increasing the rejecter’s sense of obligation. Solution: “This person’s attempt to manipulate you cancels any obligation or indebtedness you might feel.”
2. Commitment & consistency. “But you told me you’d do it, right?” The influencer’s basically saying, “You made a commitment to this, so be consistent, or you’re not trustworthy.” Consistency is valued [in society] because … a person who is consistent can be trusted to act in certain ways under certain conditions,” Nancy writes. Sexual predators use this one a lot, she adds. The question often asked is, “You trust me, don’t you?” “It is a rare child who will respond with a ‘no’.” There’s also the effect of group commitment (the obvious downside being groups promoting hate, violence, suicide, eating disorders, etc.). Solution: “The way you can tell if you have made a commitment that is now wrong is to pay close attention to how you feel inside. If you have a gut reaction that something is wrong, pay attention to this” – don’t let your brain be tricked; listen to your gut.
3. Social “proof“: The old “if everybody thinks it, it must be true,” or group think: Even if the evidence contrary to a group’s decision or viewpoint is clear, an individual will in many cases go along with the group’s position, a study found. The tactic works best, Nancy writes, “when there is some level of uncertainty or ambiguity in the situation,” which happens even more easily online than in person – for example, “viral” (word-of-mouth) marketing or collaboration in or condoning of bullying. Solution: Again, “listen to your ‘gut’ and take a close look at the situation. You might need to get away from the group to think about it on your own and make your own choices.”
4. Liking. If we like someone, we’re “far more likely to comply” with what the person wants. We’re usually more influenced by people we like because of a number of possible factors: they’re attractive, they’re “like us,” they praise us, they convey a sense of familiarity or intimacy, or they’re associated in our minds with positive things. “The Internet provides [influencers] the ability to ‘image manage’ – to create an online ‘persona’ that makes them more likable. Solution: Critical thinking – asking ourselves how much we really know about the persona or image being presented to us, online or offline (and knowing that the Net’s anonymity can make both person and persona seem like the same thing).
5. Authority. “There is strong pressure in our society to comply with requests or demands from a person in a position of authority,” Nancy writes, though she later adds that there’s evidence the Internet is eroding this tendency. “Young people who are growing up with this technology appear to be far less sensitive to … authority.” Solution: Two key questions. Ask yourself: “Is this authority truly an expert – is there independent evidence of the person’s expertise and credibility?”; “How truthful can we expect this ‘expert’ to be” – does he/she have something to gain from my acceptance or compliance?
6. Scarcity. An influencer may present something (product, behavior, opportunity) as scarce, unusual, or having exclusivity of some sort, which tend to make it more “valuable” or appealing in people’s minds. Nancy looks at the impact of this on, for example, “Managing youth access to pornography through the use of filtering software, [which] might backfire by creating an increased level of ‘value’ for the restricted ‘thing’…. Parents should remain mindful of the scarcity principle in seeking to guide their child’s Internet use…. ‘Just say no’ is likely to be significantly less effective than ‘Just say know’.”

Your reactions, comments, solutions on this topic are welcome in our forum.

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