November 28, 2016
The idea of the “echo chamber,” a metaphor describing the phenomenon where a person’s own ideological beliefs are reinforced and reverberated among the like-minded people and news sources they surround themselves with, has had implications on the American dialogue in several instances. The first instance where this term was used was to explain public sentiment and policy around the decision to pursue the war in Iraq. Most recently, the term has been applied to the 2016 presidential election, where Hillary Clinton supporters were shocked by her loss due to the inaccurate gauge of public opinion represented in their social media feeds.
Social media has advanced and compounded the existence of echo chambers. Facebook’s algorithm goes so far as to highlight posts on a user’s feed that, based on their activity, aligns with their preferences. Therefore, many users interact with a curated bubble of folks that tend to think the way they do, and who certainly are not representative of broader social sentiment. For those working in the social advocacy space, including public relations firms, this can present a problem in changing the hearts and minds of people with differing viewpoints.
While many of us are subject to the opinions of the social bubbles we unconsciously select, a recent report by Pew Research Center suggests that this is not always the case. According to the research, while 70% of social media users are not swayed by what they see on their social networks, 20% of social media users say they indeed have modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media. The respondents indicated that their opinions were changed on major social justice issues including the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control, as well as their stance on who they voted for in the election.
This data presents hope for public relations firms, organizations and individuals engaged in advocacy and social justice. For those looking to shift sentiment on an issue beyond their like-minded followers, it is certainly worthwhile to take extra efforts to expand their following to new groups. Additionally, organizations should encourage healthy, open dialogue among their follower base to ensure the sharing of opinions and attract a diverse audience. In order to gauge a more accurate pulse on social sentiment, advocacy organizations and public relations agencies should monitor a spectrum of news sources and advocate accordingly.