Social media can be a great force for uniting people to achieve extraordinary results. In 2014, the ALS ice bucket challenge was launched with the goal of raising money for research on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The challenge encouraged participants to share a video clip where they pour a bucket of ice water on their heads and then nominate others to do the same. The nominated participants had 24 hours to comply or forfeit by way of a charitable financial donation to the cause. The challenge took the internet by storm. More than 2.4 million participants shared video clips and the ALS association received $115 million (around 800 crore now) in donations.

The initiative succeeded because of a combination of social proofing, altruism, fun, competitiveness and social media pressure. The creator of the challenge clearly had a great sense of how to raise awareness and promote positive action.

Social media can also lead to intense polarization. Wael Ghonim helped spark the Egyptian revolution by setting up a Facebook page that galvanized people to raise their voice against the government. Once the revolution spilled on to the streets, however, it started becoming unmanageable, with people pulling in different directions. The effect was immediately visible on social media. The very platform that had enabled the organizers of the movement to engage people, crowdsource ideas and build a strong community quickly became an intensely polarized battleground. Hate speech and negative sentiment quickly spiralled out of control. In a TED talk, “Let’s Design Social Media That Drives Real Change", Ghonim makes a plea to design social systems that promote civility and reasoned argument.

In the digital age, leaders play an active role in building communities, promoting action and ensuring sustenance of the community. To do this successfully, leaders need to understand how social media amplifies the biases we all carry. This understanding is important for leaders to design sustainable social systems inside and outside the organization.

First, fake news is dished out to us daily through messaging apps, social media platforms and even mainstream media. We are constantly consuming conspiracy theories, partisan content and questionable science packaged as fact. In December 2016, a WhatsApp message claiming that the Reserve Bank of India had cancelled Axis Bank’s licence went viral, leading people to withdrawing money from their Axis Bank accounts. In the absence of fact-checking on the part of readers, we witness knee-jerk reactions en masse. Fake news stokes our confirmation bias, the cognitive blind spot that makes us seek out evidence that matches our belief and disregard evidence that doesn’t fit.

Second, technology serves us news feeds based on our preferences, captured through online activity. We inadvertently create a filter bubble for ourselves and end up cutting ourselves off from diverse information sources. Information coming from similar sources tends to reinforce our existing beliefs. It also makes us believe that certain events are happening more frequently than the norm. This leads to availability bias, a mental short cut that relies on recent examples while we evaluate situations.

Finally, content producers are incentivised today to maximize clicks and views. Hence there is an implicit push towards creating click-bait headlines and sensational news stories. Sensationalism leads to greater collective attention, which then leads to social proof. Critical thinking and civilized conversations are lost in the bargain.

Within the organization, leaders need to promote a culture that encourages diversity and urges people to stay open and reconcile with conflicting ideas. Chances are employees will use the same values outside the organization. Leaders also need to recommend seeking disconfirming evidence for beliefs. To do this, they must establish a hypothesis-driven culture, where team members are encouraged to build prototypes and prove or disprove their hypothesis before decisions can be made. Leaders also need to encourage critical thinking and thoughtful action.

Outside the organization, leaders need to build a community based on the higher purpose of the organization and inspire positive action. Social media interactions need to be human-centred and empathetic. While algorithms are great for driving efficiency in interactions, they are still some time away from effectiveness and empathy. The recent Facebook faux pas in Indonesia is a case in point. After the recent earthquake in Lombok, Facebook users wrote: “I hope people will survive." They used the word selamat in the sentence, a word in Bahasa Indonesia that means both congratulations and survival. Facebook’s algorithms interpreted selamat in the positive context and started showing some balloons and confetti on users’ pages, earning it much ire.

To sum up, social media is a powerful platform for achieving extraordinary things that are usually not possible with small groups of individuals. At the same time, there are dangers of manipulation, misinformation and polarization that leaders and organizations need to watch out for. Leaders must strive to set up social systems that leverage the power of conversations and mindfulness to create positive impact.

This article is part of a series on leadership in the digital era. Rajiv Jayaraman is the founder and CEO of KNOLSKAPE, an end-to-end learning and assessments platform.

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