Thanks to the Internet and, increasingly, social media, we’re more connected than ever. We have Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We use Snapchat and Instagram to show our spontaneous sides. We post, comment, like, share and retweet information like never before. We engage. We sell. We persuade.
But are we building communities? Are we bridging divides? Or are we gathering in dark, angry, inward-looking cocoons with only our closest ideological relatives to keep us company?
It’s all of this more, as I learned from my conversation with two pros of the social media world – Mike Thompson of CRC Public Relations in Virginia and Beverly Hallberg, president of District Media Group, which helps people present themselves and their messages with confidence and precision.
We know more about what President Trump is thinking from day to day than we’ve ever known about any president before thanks to Twitter. We are, in essence, subscribers to all the nation’s major newspapers and TV networks via following their reporters on Twitter and their pages on Facebook. Ordinary people can create their own live TV shows by simply pointing a phone camera at themselves and posting the content to Facebook Live.
We used to have three channels of TV. Now, Americans watch more on screens that are not televisions than they watch on television – and the availability of top-quality shows may never have been better. More than a third of Americans and nearly 30 percent of the world’s population have Facebook accounts. Facebook and Google together control more than 80 percent of the ad dollars spent online right now and drive more than 80 percent of the traffic to American news websites.
The information Facebook and Google collect from what we pursue on the Internet in turn gives marketers, think tankers, politicians and others enormous insight into our preferences. Suddenly, the grocery store ads that appear on my Facebook feed show only the on-sale items I am likely to buy. I see only political content with which I would be expected to agree. I’m a baseball fan, so I see news not about sports in general but specifically about baseball – and mostly only about my favorite team.
In a sense this is a boon for consumers. It gives us more time to look over the products and ideas we could buy or buy into with less interference from people, products and views we’re not interested in. But the goal for the marketers is to reduce the audience reached to those who care the most – to speak to a smaller group but one more likely to act on the information.
They are isolating us by design.
They send tech-related content to techies, sports-related content to weekend sports warriors and entertainment-related content to movie buffs.
They are identifying the people who care about Kim Kardashian and making so much money off marketing her to them that she was earning $1 million per Facebook post at one point.
Again, fine. Except it means non-techies never hear about tech, non-baseball fans never hear about football or tennis or golf and non-movie fans never hear anything about any movie that might draw them back in.
Mike said on the show that we all can open up Facebook and see something completely different. Liberal Democrats see content for liberal Democrats. Conservatives see content for conservatives. Literally, Mike said, “We can open up our feeds and mine will say, ‘Trump is horrible and here’s all the proof,’ and yours will say, ‘Trump is awesome. Here’s our proof.’”
This is what Kellyanne Conway meant by alternative facts. Each side has its own version of the truth, and that is all many of its supporters ever hear. This allows them to form views unencumbered by data from the other side, which usually means those views are more strident, less informed and harder to change even when good evidence presents itself.
Mike pointed out this goes far beyond social media. “People are more and more self-selecting about where they live and they’re being surrounded more and more by people who think more like them or are more like them. I had friends were stunned … ‘Wait, Donald Trump won? I can’t name a single person I know that voted for Donald Trump.’ That’s because of where you live.”
And what you watch on your computer. And what Facebook and Twitter and all the new gatekeepers allow you to see.