How Social Media Divides Us

Social media should bring us together, right?

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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.

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.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

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)

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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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. 

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 élite 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.

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…

  • social media com­pan­ies to 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.
  • states and insti­tu­tions to con­tinu­ously ensure that no third parties ever get their hands on our user data — includ­ing forms and institutions.
  • news pub­lish­ers to con­tinu­ously report the object­ive truth and always side with indi­vidu­als (not groups) without strong voices or influ­en­tial platforms.
  • polit­ic­al interest groups to con­tinu­ously defend their oppon­ents’ demo­crat­ic rights to engage in respect­ful debate and that all forms of polit­ic­al coer­cion by force are unacceptable.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Spiral of Silence

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

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​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​i​n​i​o​n​_​c​o​r​r​i​dor

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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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. https://​www​.researchg​ate​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​/​2​8​8​2​9​2​5​9​6​_​O​r​g​a​n​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​_​p​e​r​c​e​p​t​i​o​n​_​m​a​n​a​g​e​m​e​n​t​_​A​_​f​r​a​m​e​w​o​r​k​_​t​o​_​o​v​e​r​c​o​m​e​_​c​r​i​s​i​s​_​e​v​e​nts
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 Opinion cor­ridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​i​n​i​o​n​_​c​o​r​r​i​dor
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.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo has nothing to do with public relations, of course. I share for no other reason that I happen to enjoy photography. Call it an “ornamental distraction”—and a subtle reminder to appreciate nature.

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