How Social Media Divides Us

Social media should bring us together, right?

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

There are growing concerns about how social media divides us.

As it becomes easier for everyone to self-publish without censorship, we also see the rise of anonymous hate, fraudulent behaviour, online trolls, rampant populism, and propaganda.

And then there’s the techlash.

Oh, and haven’t you heard? Social media is killing journalism and culture, too.

If the internet is truly mightier than the sword, can the general public be trusted to wield such powers? 

As the recent debate on how social media is responsible for spreading fake news and alternative facts stirs emotions, many raise their voices for stricter regulation and increased control. We mustn’t socialise ourselves to death, it seems.

So, we must ask ourselves strictly how social media divides us.

Social Media Divides Us Academically

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) was an American writer, political commentator, and columnist. His legacy still lingers, as he coined concepts like “the Cold War” and words like “stereotype.” His most notable publication, Public Opinion (1922), is still noteworthy for public relations professionals.

Perception Management

No one is basing their attitudes and behaviours on reality; we’re basing them on our perceptions of reality.

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) proposed that our perceptions of reality differ from the actual reality. The reality is too vast and too complex for anyone to process. 1Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

Those who can manage the perceptions of publics can control their attitudes and behaviours.

The research on perception management is focused on how organisations can create a desired reputation:

“The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activities that help organisations establish and/or maintain a desired reputation (Staw et al., 1983). More specifically, OPM research has primarily focused on two interrelated factors: (1) the timing and goals of perception management activities and (2) specific perception management tactics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organizational Perception Management 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.

Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more important than ever before.

“We are all captives of the picture in our head—our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

Lippmann, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, engaged in heated public debates with John Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher and psychologist of specific interest in public relations. His perspective of human interaction gave rise to the idea of segmenting people in publics (the “P” in public relations). 3The Lippmann-Dewey debate was an intellectual battle concerning the role of journalism. Can the general public comprehend the value of serious reporting, or will they opt for entertainment instead?

Dewey critiqued Lippmann’s “elitist views”, while Lippmann emphasised the importance of journalism; the public cannot make sense of the world without objective reporting and expert insights. 

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) argued that mass media was a propaganda tool for the elites, the father of public relations.

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations
Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images.

The Father of PR: Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891–1995) is considered the father of public relations. His uncle was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, and Bernays, too, was interested in behavioural psychology.

Bernays certainly was something of a character: His most famous book is titled Propaganda—in which he outlined how to manage the perceptions of crowds, much like modern Niccolo Machiavelli or Sun Tzu:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
— Edward Bernays

PR Case Study: Torches of Freedom

When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realised that cigarette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a business perspective, there was a golden opportunity to add half the population to Lucky Strike’s list of potential customers.

No one had done this successfully, not because no one ever had that idea, but because it was a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays succeeded by tapping into another prevailing trend in society: The emancipation of women.

Bernays positioned cigarettes for women as “Torches of Freedom.” He placed the idea in articles, newspapers, celebrity endorsements, and events. He planted the public perception of women smoking not because it was enjoyable but as a symbol of female independence.

PR Case Study: Eggs and Bacon

Have you ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast at a hotel? Well, you can thank Bernays for that idea.

Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farming industry convince people to eat more eggs and bacon. To make this happen, he wanted to change people’s perception of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon.

Bernays cooperated with food scientists to establish that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy breakfast for every American. And to manifest this, he collaborated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast.

Ivy Lee - Public Relations
Ivy Lee.

Another influential PR practitioner, Ivy Lee (187-1934), who, amongst other accomplishments, created the first press release and influenced the field of crisis communications, seemed to have much more faith in humanity’s capacity for understanding the world.

On Lippmann’s side of things, we see critical minds like Noam Chomsky discussing the manufacturing of consent, and on Dewey’s side, we find minds like Clay Shirky discussing, here comes everybody. While Chomsky would argue that our media is primarily a tool for the elite to shape our minds, Shirky would likely say that we as individuals have absolute power (“there’s no information overload, only filter failure”).

Neil Postman (1931-2003) warned us about amusing ourselves to death, while Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) demoted the importance of specific content by stating that the medium is the message.

The Medium is the Message

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his notable book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980).

Despite being one of the most influential thinkers in media theory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely misunderstood. “The medium is the message” is no exception.

“The medium is the message” doesn’t imply that content or substance lacks importance, only that the medium in which messages are sent will significantly impact humanity.

McLuhan proposes that the manifestation of any medium will matter significantly more than anything subsequently transmitted through that medium.

Let’s use Twitter in a social media context: Twitter as a medium will impact humanity more than any single message sent via Twitter.

How can this be?

McLuhan views mediums as extensions of human physiology. Our ability to build houses extends our human skin, as it protects against the elements. This added layer of protection and physical safety frees up mental bandwidth for human interaction.

So, a house is a medium in McLuhan’s interpretation. All human technologies, all the way down to the campfire, are considered mediums.

“McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. […] McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.”
Source: Wikipedia

According to McLuhan, our ability to create extensions of humanity exponentially impacts our communication more than any message conveyed as a result:

  • A lightbulb is a medium (an extension of the human eye).
  • A house is a medium (an extension of the human skin).
  • The telephone is a medium (an extension of human vocal cords).

And so on.

Example: Twitter is a medium extending several human capacities. These technologies have a tremendous impact on how opinions are formed, how groups emerge, how we feel, how information travel, and how we interpret the world. And not only that: The limitations of Twitter impact what’s being communicated on Twitter, too.

Why is McLuhan’s analysis necessary? “The medium is the message” is a stark reminder that a medium’s format (and its limitations) will massively impact human society—and the messages themselves, too.

We often default to seeking meaning in messages but forget to consider the medium’s inherent media logic.

Read also: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

From a foundational standpoint, there are reasonable arguments from both sides of the spectrum.

Social Media Divides Us Individually

Today, those who believe in the power of social media will argue that everyone’s a publisher with a powerful voice and that social graphs are redefining how we relate to each other. They are social media optimists about how the media landscape is changing, and they typically believe that we’re simply in the process of learning how to manage the digital media landscape.

Social media optimists will argue that if there’s a problem with how humans behave, we should embrace the fact that technology brings these behaviours out in the open. Because only then can we learn, as a society, how to deal with such serious issues.

Then, we have social media pessimists who will argue that social media is a breeding ground for fake news, populism, and the subsequent death of one of the essential pillars of democracy — journalism. They’re also the driving force behind Techlash, seriously critiquing the tech giants.

The Hostile Media Effect

Do you think that the news media is biased against your beliefs? Well, they might be. And they might also not be.

Researchers have found that individuals tend to see the news media as biased against them—even when it’s not:

“The hostile media effect […] is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the tendency for individuals with a strong preexisting attitude on an issue to perceive media coverage as biased against their side and in favour of their antagonists’ point of view.”
Source: Hostile media effect 4Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia.

Are we paranoid? Are we seeing bias in the news media that isn’t there? In short: Yes.

The hostile media effect doesn’t imply that the media is never biased. Still, science shows that opposing groups often regard the same articles as against them and favour their opponents.

The existence of the hostile media effect is scientifically well-established, but we still don’t know precisely why it persists:

“The hostile media perception, the tendency for partisans to judge mass media coverage as unfavorable to their own point of view, has been vividly demonstrated but not well explained. This contrast bias is intriguing because it appears to contradict a robust literature on assimilation biases — the tendency to find information more supportive, rather than more opposed, to one’s own position. […] content evaluations based on perceived influence on oneself vs influence on a broader audience suggested that the hostile media perception may be explained by perceived reach of the information source.”
Source: Journal of Communication 5Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.

Research suggests that the primary driver could be fear of opponents gaining in strength, and the hostile media effect could therefore be seen as a psychological defence mechanism.

Read also: The Hostile Media Effect: How We Demonise the News Media

“The wisdom of crowds” is beautiful, but is it also naive? Wikipedia is a remarkable achievement and couldn’t exist without its community of volunteers. WordPress powers 26% of the web and runs on open-source contributions from programmers worldwide.

Still, social media pessimists don’t feel that whatever good social media is doing isn’t enough to make up for making us addicted to our smartphones and promoting further polarization.

Social Media Divides Us Algorithmically

In the wake of the recent US election, where President Donald Trump won the populist voters, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has been heavily criticised for aiding and abetting the dissemination of peak populism.

Facebook, and most other social media platforms, are being heavily criticised for creating filter bubbles where like-minded people get their delusions amplified by social reinforcement — instead of listening to well-educated experts on relevant subject matters.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal didn’t precisely strengthen Facebook’s case.

Governments and institutions are going after the tech giants worldwide, but are their goals altruistic? Or are our governments trying to get their hands on our data themselves?

With profound advancements in narrow artificial intelligence, social scoring systems and facial recognition, there’s a case to be made that it’s better to see innovation driven by companies that run ads rather than institutions that monopolise violence.

Still, putting the macro power balance aside, there’s the pressing underlying issue of social media algorithms promoting media logic mechanisms, i.e. polarisation, simplification, personalisation, and visualisation.

Either way, there’s an apparent risk that powerful agents like states and tech giants are taking advantage of adverse side effects to push for more power and incredible wealth — at the expense of us social media users.

Social Media Divides Us Politically

The conflict between news publishers and tech giants fighting for a share of voice and ad revenue isn’t made any better. This conflict often forces news publishers to side with the state’s agenda, not the people’s.

Still, our social media usage is deeply ingrained in our communicative behaviour. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) are already influencing our media consumption at an unprecedented level.

Consequently, journalists and traditional news publishers, the former champions of free speech and freedom from censorship, are pushing tech giants like Facebook to take responsibility for how we, the social media users, leverage the freedom of speech.

Still, we must ask ourselves if we want the FAANG companies to use their algorithms to shape our worldview actively.

A significant issue is that today’s political landscape is driven by its flanks. On the one side, we have alt-right nationalists and populists, and on the other, we have alt-left social justice warriors. While far apart politically, they’re both heavily reliant on identity politics, centralised power, and intolerance of differing opinions.

Both flanks see aggression and violence as reasonable political methods, highly favoured expressions amplified by social media algorithms.

So, no matter if Mark Zuckerberg were to take the stance of being a social media optimist or a social media pessimist, he wouldn’t know which leg to stand on:

If the tech giants leave the social algorithms unchecked, they fuel the flanks.
They fuel the flanks if they manipulate the algorithms to stabilise human behaviour.

And doing nothing accelerates the spiral of silence:

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

Stop Social Media From Dividing Us

Neil Postman warned us about the dangers of media logic and the risk of “amusing ourselves to death”.

While television indeed changed the fabric of our society for both better and worse, we must ask ourselves if we believe that state-controlled television used to control our worldviews and emotional states would have been preferable. Or if it’s even possible to stop information technology from changing our lives?

As social media users, we must be careful about what we wish for.

The question of how social media divides us is complex, so what kind of change should we demand from those in power?

We should demand that social media companies continuously improve their algorithms to give privilege to science, substance, trust, and logic instead of the behaviours of those who are most prone to irrational and emotional responses.

We should demand that states and institutions continuously ensure that no third parties ever get their hands on our user data — including forms and institutions.

We should demand that news publishers continuously report the objective truth and side with individuals (not groups) with no voice and no platform.

We should demand that political interest groups continuously defend their opponents’ democratic rights to engage in respectful debate and that all forms of political coercion by force are unacceptable.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

1 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
2 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.
3 The Lippmann-Dewey debate was an intellectual battle concerning the role of journalism. Can the general public comprehend the value of serious reporting, or will they opt for entertainment instead?
4 Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia.
5 Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.



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