There are growing concerns about how social media divides us.
And then there’s the techlash.
Oh, and haven’t you heard? Social media is killing journalism and culture, too.
Can the general public be trusted to wield such powers if the internet is truly mightier than the sword?
Here we go:
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.
Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and 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.
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: Organization Development Journal 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. … Continue reading
Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more critical 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 (1889 – 1974)
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Lippmann, the 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 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.
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 élite to shape our minds, Shirky would likely say that we as individuals have absolute power (“there’s no information overload, only filter failure”).
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. 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 the techlash, seriously critiquing the tech giants.
“The wisdom of crowds” is beautiful, but is it also naïve? 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, pessimists don’t feel that whatever good social media is doing is enough to make up for making us addicted to 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 amplify their delusions 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 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 actively use their algorithms to shape our worldview.
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.
How To Stop Social Media From Dividing Us
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.
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 our wishes.
The question of how social media divides us is complex, so what kind of change should we demand from those in power?
We should lobby for…
PR Resource: Spiral of Silence
The Spiral of Silence
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1916 – 2010) well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure the publics to silence their opinions.
Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their genuine 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 (1916 – 2010)
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). 4Opinion corridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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
Learn more: The Spiral of Silence
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|Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.|
|Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288292596_Organizational_perception_management_A_framework_to_overcome_crisis_events|
|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?|
|Opinion corridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_corridor|