Season 3, Episode 3 - Communications researcher Elizabeth Stoycheff, Ph.D., on our love hate/relationship with the power of social media

Researcher Elizabeth Stoycheff, Ph.D., talks about Americans' love/hate relationship with social media.

Episode Description

Associate professor Elizabeth Stoycheff, Ph.D., talks about her research into the power of social media, why so many users struggle with conflicting feelings about the platforms and how to regulate our social media use for the better.


Elizabeth Stoycheff, Ph.D., teaches journalism, new media, international communication and quantitative methods. She has been named a Promising Professor by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and earned the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Outstanding Teaching Award in 2017. She was also awarded a Scripps Howard Visiting Professor in Social Media. 

Her research focuses on the role of new media in shaping public opinion about democracy, media censorship and press freedom, which is grounded in a range of contexts from the Arab Spring to Russia-Ukraine relations to NSA internet surveillance. She is an expert in online privacy and government monitoring as well as disinformation ("fake news") campaigns. She specializes in big data comparative surveys, natural experiments and formal experimental designs.

Additional Resources

Follow Elizabeth Stoycheff on Twitter

Follow Prof. Stoycheff on Facebook

Read Prof. Stoycheff's article "How Facebook Went from Friend to Enemy"

Follow the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts on Instagram

Follow CFPCA on Twitter

Follow CFPCA on Facebook


Announcer:                   Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community with news announcements, information and turn events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission. Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:             Welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast, I'm your host Darrell Dawsey. Over the past few years, thanks to issues such as data breaches, the spread of misinformation and its impact on the hearts and minds of young people, social media, and the habits we've developed around it have become a major concern for many around the country. In Congress there are calls to more broad, more heavily regulate platforms such as Facebook. In Silicon Valley, tech companies are taking it upon themselves to self-regulate on matters such as privacy, and in many homes, parents, and even young people themselves are taking it upon themselves to limit their own social media access.

                                    Suddenly, America seems to have a love/hate relationship with social media. At Wayne State, associate professor Elizabeth Stoycheff has spent considerable time researching Americans' ties to their social media, and she's developed some pretty interesting thoughts about what we get from social media, why it impacts as so and what we can do to mitigate it to negative influences. She's here with us today to talk about her work, and we want to say welcome.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Thanks, Darrell. I'm happy to be here.

Darrell Dawsey:             Thanks for joining us Elizabeth, this is great. So I've read a little bit about your work, but I was wondering if you could maybe just explain to our readers a little bit about what it is that you study and why it's important.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Sure. So my primary area of expertise is journalism and journalism communication. And within that I study social media. I've studied social media for probably 10 years now. And there was a lot of optimism around Facebook when it came out in 2004, and each subsequent platform that has preceded it has brought a lot of excitement and these are very powerful, popular tools. They teach us a lot about the social world and our relationships with one another, how we get information, how we get news, how we share interests.

                                    But lately, as you mentioned, social media have been having some reputational crises, both in the realm of data and individual privacy as well as disinformation. And so I think these are important things that we need to continue to keep an eye on and study the effects of as we continue to spend so much time with social media.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well, you've certainly been keeping an eye on it. You've done some great work, and I just want to ask you, can you give us a sense, can you summarize some key conclusions perhaps that you've developed in the course of your study?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Sure. So if we're talking about Facebook specifically, we know that Facebook is the most popular social media app around the world, and despite its recent reputational problems, it really hasn't affected its market dominance here in the United States. And it's continuing to grow in developing countries where it's prioritizing a lot of its growth right now. And they continue to have market dominance here in the United States, which is why it's so important, and it's making it one of the most powerful communication channels today.

                                    Most Facebook users spend two and a half to three hours a day on the platform and they have around 200 to 300 friends, which is a lot of time and a lot of connections. And so it's understandable why people are spending so much time on the platform and why they're reluctant to give it up despite data breaches and known disinformation problems.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Why do you think it affects us so deeply? I'm a little bit older, so I certainly remember a time before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There were party lines, there were all kinds of ways that people could socialize and connect with one another. But social media obviously has taken this whole thing to another level and occupies a very particular place in the collective cultural psyche. Why do you think social media affects us the way it does?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Well, one way is that its business model has conditioned us for repeated exposure. That is the whole goal of platforms like Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, is to keep you coming back to the site on a regular basis and getting you to spend longer and longer time there. And so, one of the things that I've noticed in my personal life, and I know a lot of other people mention when I talk to them is that, your social media use is more habitual than intentional. It might be the first thing you check before you even get out of bed in the morning, it might be the last thing you check as you are again in bed at night. And these exposures aren't necessarily intentional.

                                    We don't go to social media looking to talk to a specific individual or looking for a particular piece of information, but we'd rather just go there because it's become part of our daily routine and it's become habitual. And what we know about habitual patterns like this is that it happens using unconscious processing and information gathering, and we're more susceptible to the negative effects of media when we're not being intentional about our use.

Darrell Dawsey:             Can you give us some sense of why that is? That we just subconsciously drop our guard? Why are we more vulnerable?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Exactly. That's exactly what's happening. Is that our guard is not up. We're not looking for specific pieces of information. So if we are just browsing our TikTok feed or our Facebook feeds and we come across news about COVID in our local community, for instance, we're not looking for COVID information. And so we might even just scroll past it, but those headlines stick with us. And one of the other things that we know about these kind of groupnized media exposures is that there is incredible power in the things that we just skim and move past.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Those are retained in our memory and often we don't retain the sources that they come from. And so we know we saw this piece of information about, oh, maybe a vaccine is ineffective. And then all of a sudden we have forgotten where that piece of information came from. We know we got it on Facebook, but did it come from a legitimate source like NPR, the Detroit Free Press, or did it come from some unknown website or from somebody's aunt sharing it as an unreliable source.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now, these phenomena that you're talking about, they've certainly impacted the way that we see social media. You've talked about the love/hate relationship that we have with social media. Certainly we know we can see the love in terms of all the people who use the platforms. How do you think the hate is expressed in terms of our relationship with social media?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      The hate is expressed. I think the hate comes from... Well, it's just a reputational problem. People report that they don't trust platforms like Instagram and Facebook and Google and Amazon. So it extends to other tech companies as well, that they don't trust these companies with their data.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:        But they continue to use them, which is something that we call a privacy paradox, which is that people have concerns, very legitimate concerns that stem from data breaches and very real concerns about misinformation on the platforms, but they don't discontinue their use. And what we know are the reasons for why there's this disconnect. Why do I have these concerns, but not change my behavior?

                                    And one reason is efficacy, because there's not much that I feel I can do. And this is something that we've seen in the past few years that internet consumers, Facebook users, are seeing companies that take data for them as just part of engaging in the digital sphere. It's the cost to participate in digital spaces now.

Darrell Dawsey:             [inaudible 00:08:39] based impact. That's right.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Exactly. And that's something that we didn't see prior to about 2018 in the Cambridge Analytica scandal that flagged Facebook. That was something that was an attitude that we didn't really see expressed very much, but researchers in Tel Aviv and the UK are finding it more and more, that individuals just feel like this is a necessary cost of using social media.

                                    The other reason why people don't quit these social media platforms, even though we know all of the problems with them, is because there's really nowhere else to go, especially right now when we're again back in quarantine and lockdowns. Digital spaces are a really great way for us to connect, and they are a way for us to connect with a lot of people.

                                    When you look at other platforms that are available for people to gather on, there's been a lot of consolidation among platforms. So if you want to go to YouTube, well, Google owns YouTube. Facebook owns Instagram. Facebook also owns WhatsApp. So if you're trying to get out of the sphere of these large tech companies, it's really hard to do so. And so yes, there are fringe platforms and websites that you could use that better protect user privacy and give you access to more accurate information. But chances are that your closest 200 friends or social connections aren't going to be using them. So it's a problem of the masses. That we all can't collectively get together and join a platform that would be better for our privacy and informational needs.

Darrell Dawsey:             I got you. Now, speaking of platforms, I know Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the world. You've got your Twitters, you've got your Instagrams. Do different platforms impact people differently, and if so, why and how?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      So in the past, this has been studied, we call this the study of affordances. So what the platform allows you to do. So previously Facebook really only allowed personal updates, and Twitter was a place for sharing news. But now we see these same affordances that are encouraged and permitted across platforms because we see that people want to do all of these things in one place.

                                    So Instagram started out as just a photo and video sharing site, but now Instagram has stories and reals, and it's adopting some of the TikTok features. It also allows you to do standalone posts. And so all of these things are conflating all of the affordances of social media. We still see some differential between how people like to use each platform. So, the population Twitter is very different than the population on Reddit, which is very different than the population on TikTok. So it's really hard to tease apart the differences between who's actually on these platforms and then what they're using the platforms for.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Well, my younger daughter always tells me I'm an old man because I have a Facebook page but I'm not very active on Instagram. So [inaudible 00:12:02].

Elizabeth Stoycheff:        Yeah. Most of my students here don't use Facebook anymore, but they are heavily involved with Instagram. And so it's important for them and all young people to understand that they are owned by the same parent company and they are engaging in a lot of the same issues surrounding your data, your privacy, about regulation on disinformation that happens on the platforms. So even if you don't use Facebook, it's something certainly to still be aware of.

Darrell Dawsey:             Elizabeth, let me just ask you this. What kind of advice would you give to anybody who's seeking to transform his or her relationship with social media into a more positive one?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Well, the first thing I will recommend is to actually take my media literacy class here at Wayne State. I teach an introductory, it's a gen ed course about media literacy and taking better control of your media life. And what I find in that class is most of the students in there feel like they have these habitual out of control experiences with media. They spend a lot of time wasted on media. And so when we think about media, we want it to suit our goals and our needs rather than the goals and the needs of the platforms themselves, right? Facebook and Google and TikTok all have their own goals about how they would like us to spend our time.

                                    And so, certain things like developing healthy routine and healthy behaviors, like not allowing yourself to check your phone and social media before you get out of bed in the morning. Or keeping your phone somewhere in a different room than where you sleep at night, are just easy things that people can adapt that really will change your social media use on a regular or basis.

                                    When we're talking about actually on the platform and the type of content that people are looking at and judging whether this is true content or fake content, some of the best things that we know about disinformation is that it really tries is to cast doubt on known institutions, respected institutions in our society. So the scientific community, the local government, establishment media, research universities like Wayne State. They're trying to cultivate a sense of doubt. And so stories like that should be a red flag, or any posts and information that try to trigger emotional responses of anger and fear. So really trying to get you riled up or really trying to scare you. Those should be red flags for information that might need to be verified somewhere else.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. All right. Well, that's great advice. You got something else you wanted to add to that, or?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      The last thing that I would encourage people to do both on Facebook and on Instagram is to look at your ad targeting and see out your personal data is actually being used for advertisers. This is something that you can actually turn off, you could change your interests so they're directing you towards both different types of ad content and different types of posts that you're seeing on the platform. So, keeping that aware, you can find that under the ads settings on both Instagram and Facebook, and it's really revealing how much these companies know about you and your personal tastes.

Darrell Dawsey:             [crosstalk 00:15:41] .

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      And how much they can guide your thinking on a number of issues, even what we would think of as trivial issues like shopping. They have an incredible amount of information on us, and it's important that we start to take back some of that information and at least understand what companies know about ourselves.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now, politically, we've got an election coming up and now is about the time of the year when a lot of our politicians rattle their savors and shake their fists at big tech and warn of the need for regulation. Let me ask you this, do you think that Congress, or some political entity in the country needs to regulate these social media platforms? If so, why, if not, why not?

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      So Facebook for a long time, so Facebook is the main one that has really, really been the forefront of resisting regulation, and it's in their financial interest to do so. It is an incredibly expensive, and I think a very difficult feat to regulate a platform like Facebook that is largely user generated, because individual users, you and I, don't want to see our content censored or regulated. We want to be able to post the types of content that we want to post. Now, from a Facebook perspective, they don't want to regulate that and lose our business, and they want to keep us on the site. So it's really hard a question in terms of regulation. I do think that there needs to be more, but it's a very, very difficult one. And I can understand why social media companies are reluctant to do it because it's in their financial best interest not to.

                                    Things that they can do that I think we'll have very tangible political consequences are to not allow micro-targeting for political advertisements.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      So, micro-targeting is targeting ads based on not only your demographic features, so your age, your race, your gender, but also on psychographic features. So do you like pickup trucks? Do you like rap music? Do you frequent certain retailers? Are you a Kroger shopper or a Meyer shopper? These small pieces of info information about us when used in aggregate are actually very telling and very revealing. And political advertising that uses micro-targeting can be very effective. And that was part of a lot of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was political actors were using this information about millions of Facebook users and sending them very targeted ads, which were very influential. And so, one thing that Google and Facebook have both committed to in the past, and I would like to see them recommit to again in upcoming election, is to turning off micro-targeting and psycho demographic targeting of political advertisements.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. All right. Well, that's a solid advice. Well, let me ask you, I know it's getting late and I don't want to keep you too long, so we're going to get ready to wrap up. But I do want to give you an opportunity to talk about anything else that maybe we haven't had a chance to address, or is there an issue you want to circle back to or something you would like to emphasize or underscore? I just want to open the floor [inaudible 00:19:14] to that.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Well, we were just talking about the political environment and elections coming up, and I just want to reiterate that Facebook and social media platforms are a really great tool, but they were never intended to be news and information sources. That we actually in our local community have phenomenal local media. We're actually a top 12 media market across the country. And so I would encourage you to continue to seek out and actively follow on social media, the Detroit Free Press, Metro Times, Hour Detroit, Bridge magazine, some of our very reputable local media outlets for news and information, because they will give you the credible information in your feeds that you're looking for.

Darrell Dawsey:             Those are where the experts are, where the people who actually dedicate themselves to studying these issues are, as opposed to, say just somebody sitting in their bathroom doing their own research on Google is what you're trying to say.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Exactly. And if you're subscribed to following these platforms, they're going to be the ones that show up in your feed rather than unverified and untrustworthy sources.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right. Well, listen Elizabeth, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us and talk with our audience and share your fantastic and very compelling work. And I wish you absolutely all the best in your continued research and to keep us upraised when you come across new findings, because we'd love to have you back.

Elizabeth Stoycheff:      Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right. Well, thanks so much Elizabeth Stoycheff. This is Darrell Dawsey. This is the Today@Wayne Podcast, and we want to thank you all for watching.

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