Alexea Johnston, Queens University.
The bandwagon effect is described as a psychological phenomenon where people do something primarily because other people are doing it. The effect persists even when the actions may be contrary to an individual’s prior beliefs. The term “bandwagoner” has been used to describe certain sports fans that only become fans of a team after they become popular or successful.
With the rise of the popularity of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, the bandwagon effect has evolved to become a much larger part of our daily lives. Every day we are bombarded with posts about climate change, social injustices and political issues, some of us repost these notices to our own timelines. Every tweet, post, and story has the potential to spark moral outrage. The more we observe these online behaviours, the more we witness that these posts aren’t from users with legitimate moral convictions and credentials, but from bandwagoners hoping on the next moral fad.
This trend can easily be mistaken to have a positive impact on society. In theory these posts are helping raise awareness on many social, political and environmental issues, especially among the younger generations; however, this mass interest in being “woke” also puts pressure on young people to purchase more products or shop at certain stores that may be pricier, while failing to provide actual knowledge or aid.
Metal straws are a popular online fad that comes with the catchy slogan “save the turtles”. The popularization of metal straws is largely owed to increasing awareness of individual impact on the environment. Disposable plastic straws eventually become ocean waste, and harmful chemicals such as BPA can affect the ocean’s ecosystem. Metal straws were first popularized by social media posts portraying how plastic straws injure and potentially kill turtles. Despite straws only making up 0.025% of ocean waste, this movement caused a surge in “eco-warriors” purchasing metal straws as an alternative to disposable plastic ones. Some fast food chains begun eliminating their one-use plastic straws, replacing the lids to their drinks with ones that do not require straws. The coffee chain Starbucks estimated that its new “nitro-lid” would eliminate more than 1 billion plastic straws a year. This is not exactly a win for the environment. Instead, it is a clever marketing scheme fabricated by Starbucks to cash-in on the moral trends and pressures of social media. The nitro-lids use more plastic than the straws would have. While Starbucks claims that the new lid is recyclable, only 9% of the world’s plastic gets recycled due to contamination.
From likes to comments and retweets, over the last decade social media has become a haven of instant gratification. Now, social media is becoming a place to showcase one’s own morality. A space where with every repost, we feel instantly superior to our followers. One of the more recent social media morality fads was regarding the Amazon rainforest fires in Brazil. This year the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has had a record number of forest fires. As a result, many Instagram accounts and posts were made with the claim that one like would donate $1 and a repost would plant a tree. @PrayfortheAmazonia, a now-deleted account, was linked to a fraudulent GoFundMe campaign and promoted a PayPal account to accept donations. This has been a popular trend on social media, with multiple accounts making false claims of partnerships with major organizations, with little to no evidence.
Bandwagon morality on social media is a criminal in disguise. Often young users feel pressured to donate to these scams or purchase expensive “sustainable” products. Due to the pretend moral crusaders if social media, we now live in a world where whether you have purchased a $12 reusable straw or not determines your moral worth. The barrage of bad news on social media is adding to the anxiety of our generation. According to a study conducted by Yale in 2018, 70% of Americans are “worried” about climate change, while, 51% of people feel “helpless”. Over the past decade, what psychologists are labelling “eco-anxiety” has become increasingly widespread. While climate change is a serious concern, the constant bombardment of bad news that previous generations have not experienced, is seriously impacting the mental health of many youth. Moreover, companies are using social media and anxiety to further market and sell their products, placing environmental responsibility onto consumers, while doing little to better their own practices.
Social media plays a large role in our generation’s values, and it allows these values to go viral. While contributing to bandwagon morality doesn’t seem like something negative, it contributes to the ongoing problem of our egocentric society. Conforming to online morality just because it has recently become popular, does not make you a moral person. The false sense of superiority from reposting a video of the Amazon burning becomes dangerous when we also feel morally accomplished from pressing a button. An Instagram post is not a form of political protest, it is an attempt to conform to the rest of your news feed, making little to no difference at all.
Like the bandwagon fans of musicians and sports teams, each moral issue will receive its respective 10-seconds of fame until social media users move onto their next crisis. Unlike sports and pop culture, humanitarian and environmental issues are serious concerns that many people must suffer the consequences of. Taking a few seconds to repost a video on Instagram should not abolish your guilt, remorse, or responsibility for an ongoing crisis. Instead of allowing social media influencers to decide where our values should lie, we must take initiative to gain understanding and act to make a difference. If not, we are just all pretenders, faking morality for likes.
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Mahdawi, Arwa. “Starbucks Is Banning Straws – but Is It Really a Big Win for the Environment?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/23/starbucks-straws-ban-2020-environment.
Henden. “Amazon Rainforest Fire: How Did the Amazon Fire Start? How Long Has It Been on Fire?” Express.co.uk, Express.co.uk, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1168299/amazon-rainforest-fire-how-did-amazon-fires-start-cause-deforestation-how-long-fire.
Cook, Jesselyn. “Instagram Scammers Are Using The Fires In The Amazon To Rip People Off.” HuffPostCanada, HuffPost Canada, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/instagram-scammers-amazon-fires_n_5d7116c5e4b01108045aa498.
Whitcomb, Isobel. “The Barrage of Bad News About Climate Change Is Triggering ‘Eco-Anxiety,’ Psychologists Say.” LiveScience, Purch, 2 July 2019, https://www.livescience.com/65843-climate-change-anxiety-is-real.html.