What is our true power to influence opinion online?

Friday 8th August 2014

Are we all truly awake to the implications of tritely recommending to clients social media campaigns as a way to ‘engage’, ‘influence the debate’ or indeed ‘change minds’?

While the ability to create engaged online communities is a fantastic communications tool, we need to be alive to one of the more fascinating contradictions of social media: that while it provides us with the ability to connect globally and access a wide variety of information and opinions, in reality it tends to narrow our focus, cut us off from differing perspectives and seal us into special-interest groupings.

Why? Because our social media profiles reflect and are based on what we (think) we know, our personal interests and, yes, our prejudices. We choose to share pages that interest us, follow certain people and like specific posts. All of which is perfectly natural. But the flip side of this is that by doing so we are effectively filtering out the things we don’t like or jar with our beliefs. This is exacerbated massively if we use social media channels such as Facebook as our primary information sources.

Betawork’s Gilad Lotan brings this beautifully to life in an extremely thought-provoking piece on Medium.com this week, on the depressing Israel-Gaza conflict. Lotan critically notes that “the more we engage with certain type of content, the more similar content is made visible in our feeds. Recommendation and scoring functions learn from our social connections and our actions online, constructing a model that optimizes for engagement”.

We’ve gone from a culture of passively receiving broadcast news to generating and sharing narrowcast opinions. As Lotan wryly remarks, “we used to be able to hold media accountable for misinforming the public. Now we only have ourselves to blame.”

Lotan uses some funky graphics to analyse how the online debate around the Israel-Gaza conflict is as polarised as the conflict itself. We’ve included just one example at the top of this blog post, which shows Twitter handles following the UNWRA strike. It shows that the majority of international media reporting (grey) is more aligned with Palestinian sympathisers (green), whereas US conservatives (dark blue) are deeply connected to Israel sympathisers (light blue).

This graphic clearly shows that the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is one of the few unpolarised voices in this case, and perceived as a source of credible information for both sides, is somewhat bridging the divide. While this is clearly an extreme example, it can nonetheless serve as an abject lesson of the difficulty of bridging different (in this case, diametrically opposed) online information silos.

It’s really worth taking the time to read the full piece.


George Candon is Senior Director in FTI Consulting


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