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How Social Media Divides Us — Report From a Media Landscape in Distress

There are growing concerns for 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, 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 really be trusted to wield such powers? 

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

So, we must ask ourselves exactly how social media divides us?

How 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 as “the Cold War” and words like “stereotype.” His most notable publication, Public Opinion (1922), is still a notable read for public relations professionals.

Lippmann, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, engaged in heated public debates1 with John Dewey (1859 – 1952), an American philosopher and psychologist of specific interest to public relations; his perspective of human interaction gave rise to the idea of segmenting people in publics (the “p” in public relations).

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. 

The father of public relations, Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) argued that mass media was a propaganda tool for the elites. But another influential PR practitioner, Ivy Lee (1877 – 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 argue that we as individuals have the final 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 simply reasonable arguments from both sides of the spectrum.

How social media divides us individually

Today, those who believe in the power of social media will argue that everyone’s a publisher with a significant voice and that the 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 are bringing these types of behaviours out in the open. Because only then can we learn, as a society, how to deal with the such serious issues.

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

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

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

How social media divides us algorithmically

In the wake of the recent US election, where President Donald Trump won the populist vote, 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 criticized for the creation of filter bubbles where like-minded people get their delusions amplified by way of social reinforcement — instead of listening to well-educated expertise on relevant subject matters.

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

Governments and institutions are going after the tech giants in many places around the world, but are their goals altruistic? Or are our governments trying to get their hands on our data for themselves?

With serious 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 who run ads rather than by institutions holding a monopoly on 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 negative side-effects to push for more power and greater wealth — at the expense of us social media users.

How social media divides us politically

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

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.

As a consequence, 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 freedom of speech is leveraged by us, the social media users.

Still, we must ask ourselves if we want the FAANG companies to use their algorithms to actively shape our view of the world?

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

Both flanks see aggression and violence and as reasonable political methods, expressions that are highly favoured and amplified by the 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 simply wouldn’t know which leg to stand on:

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

And doing nothing accelerates the spiral of silence.

How to stop social media from dividing us

How social media divides us
What kind of change should we as social media users demand?

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

While television surely 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 world-views 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 of 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 are making sure that no third-parties ever get their hands on our user data — and that includes states and institutions themselves.

We should demand that news publishers continuously strive for reporting the objective truth and that they side with individuals (not groups) that have no voice and no platform.

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

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash.


  1. The Lippmann-Dewey debate (Wikipedia).


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication 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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