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The main trouble with social media is that it encourages us to think that way, sometimes with disastrous results.

But the most serious problems of social media are not the obvious ones. For example, the Internet is no friend to plagiarism (on the contrary, the Internet makes plagiarism quite easy to detect). And those who defend it do not thrive either.

No, the big problem is that social media are somewhat like a neighbourhood barbecue. Imagine a neighbourhood that includes the world. One can win friends and influence people—or lose friends and alienate people.

In my view, Jessica Barefield identified the key problem aptly: “Social media gives a platform to your every thought.”

I think the solidarity of posting on social media can trick you into thinking it’s OK to post just about anything. We complain, we anonymously bash people, we disrespect people in authority, and we say whatever we think about celebrities, as if they weren’t real people. And we believe we don’t really have to answer for any of it.

Sometimes we do have to answer for it.

In any event, we often don’t even know who we are communicating with. That became obvious in a recent study where the researchers reported,

A growing number of academic researchers are mining social media data to learn about both online and offline human behavior. In recent years, studies have claimed the ability to predict everything from summer blockbusters to fluctuations in the stock market.

But there are serious problems from just assuming that one is working with a general sample of the population, they say. Here are a couple of examples:

Different social media platforms attract different users – Pinterest, for example, is dominated by females aged 25-34 – yet researchers rarely correct for the distorted picture these populations can produce.

Publicly available data feeds used in social media research don’t always provide an accurate representation of the platform’s overall data – and researchers are generally in the dark about when and how social media providers filter their data streams.

The design of social media platforms can dictate how users behave and, therefore, what behavior can be measured. For instance, on Facebook the absence of a “dislike” button makes negative responses to content harder to detect than positive “likes”. Study.

And I haven’t even got to the fact that tons of your (maybe) “friends” and “followers” don’t really exist.

Next: Friends and followers who don’t really exist

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...