This article originally appeared in the February issue of the Council’s monthly newsletter, Impact. 

As social media has become an accepted, even everyday component of the public affairs toolkit, astute practitioners are beginning to recognize some of its unintended consequences.

“I’m a huge supporter of social media as a means of communicating in a transparent manner, as well as in its ability to source feedback from large groups of people in real time,” says Mike Capaldi, assistant vice president, civic action and social networking, Sanofi US.

But when it comes to “matters that are very personal, like the way we vote and our personal politics,” Capaldi says social media might further divide Americans, contributing to the polarization that troubles political leaders, pundits and public affairs professionals.

As Pew Research has confirmed, Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”

This condition is unlikely to change, Steven Strauss, a 2012 advanced leadership fellow at Harvard, writes in The Huffington Post. Americans “believe what we want to believe, and we selectively filter out information contradicting our preferences.” This is what experts call “confirmation bias,” which was less troublesome in the 1960s, he says, when Americans “got their news from one of three TV networks and local newspapers were often a monopoly.”

Social media could “possibly entrench our ideologies even deeper,” Capaldi says. “We tend to congregate in social media and create an environment that is fortified by opinion and thought that pushes us further into our positions.”

Christian Clymer, deputy vice president, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, echoes the same concerns.

Reflecting on the 2012 presidential campaign, Clymer says that supporters of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney “funneled into their respective silos in social media just to agree with one another and egg one another on. What was lacking was an honest social debate on major issues.”

Clymer fears that this tendency might contribute “to the increased polarization we’re seeing in our politics, where people only watch the cable TV networks whose attitudes they share. This is an ongoing problem in our politics, but I’m not sure what the answer might be.”

Whether or not an answer is found, public affairs professionals still need to understand how social media can be “a means to perhaps broaden their base on an issue or candidate,” Capaldi says. “The amplification that occurs through that channel can grow that base quickly and efficiently.”

But social media is unlikely “to win over those on the opposite side of an issue or candidate,” he says. “In fact, because the medium is so uncontrolled and organic, it could actually work against a campaign. But this is not a reason to completely avoid using social media in campaigns.”

Rather, its use remains “a risk vs. reward proposition that should be well thought out as part of the overall strategy,” Capaldi says.

 

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