Ever wondered why your family seems to have different information than you about important national news? It’s not just that the media they read are different — the way they access media may also be completely different to you.

First, please indulge me by answering a one-question survey: 

Sources

Before you take me to task for my stereotyping, according to the Pew Research Institute, these are the typical media consumption patterns by generation.

It should come as no surprise that you and your parents have different information or even attitudes toward the same news in light of how differently we consume news.

Such a stark generational difference begs the following questions:

  • Do people who get their news on social media get more biased information?
  • How many people actually follow news organizations on Twitter/ other social media? Do they read the articles linked, or just the headlines and reactions? How many source most of their news on social media from non-news users who might further spin the information?
  • How do impressions of the same news differ depending on where it is consumed? Is social media news more effective at causing action? Does news on traditional media lead to more contemplation, with print readers being most contemplative?

The Conversation, a not-for-profit media written by scholars and academics, identified three types of bias on social media:

  1. Bias in the brain
  • Preference for simpler information to avoid overload
  1. Social bias
  • Influence from peers on how we react to information
  1. Machine bias
  • Tendency of social platforms to promote high-engagement information

While social platforms pledge to crack down on “fake news” and critically misleading content, these three biases only show signs of growing.

Recent research by NewsGuard indicates that the amount and ratio of engagement on posts sourced from unreliable “red” sites is increasing in relation to that of reliable “green” sites. The 9 rating criteria, centered on transparency and credibility, are available here.

This may be caused by the election. Only time will tell.

But while many conclusions about bias of information on social media have been made generally, we have few public sources of thorough and specific examples of how information is bent. This area needs more rigorous investigation.

Trust

While engagement with untrustworthy content on social media is growing, It’s difficult to understand how each and every individual reacts to and, perhaps, spreads information. This comes down to what sources people trust. While many admit to sourcing their information from the internet and social media, what attitude do they have towards the different types? 

The Edelman Trust barometer regularly gauges public trust in government, business, various kinds of media, etc., across the world. This year, as many might have predicted, trust in information sources is at an all-time low.

It should come as no surprise that trust in each actor varies across party lines in the United States, as “division” has become the word of the day, mentioned both by Donald Trump in his election night victory speech in 2016 and by Joseph Biden in his recent inaugural speech.

Trust in journalists shows the largest trust gap of a staggering 42, almost half of the scale. As a PR professional whose work is based on the premise that the media is a preferred and trusted source of information, this stark contrast should make you think twice about how to craft a communications plan that can successfully reach both red and blue voters.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the rancour. “My employer” is more trusted across the world than businesses, government, the media, NGOs and anybody else. Perhaps this is thanks to the close relationship between employers and employees, which has grown more important during the pandemic.


To download the full Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report (pdf), click here. The article can be viewed on the Edelman website at https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer.

What it means for comms practitioners

Communications practitioners stand in the middle of the public and information sources, including but not limited to businesses, NGOs, politicians, governmental bodies, and more. We all have an anecdote or two about encountering a different reception than expected. 

Mine is from a digital ad campaign for a Japanese electronics maker. We ran ads for a contest to win a cutting-edge product, whose details, including product name, were not yet made public. The campaign earned a lot of engagement on Facebook ― but not the right kind. Comments like “this is a Chinese product that’s going to steal your data” and “this is a scam” stood out.

The client was a start up connected to a respected and long-established Japanese firm, yet because the company name was so unfamiliar and the product name was omitted, Facebook users filled in information blanks with anti-China rhetoric they had been hearing in the news to draw erroneous conclusions.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No matter how we responded in the comments, similar comments popped up throughout the campaign. ( Like Huawei, I can only imagine the drone manufacturer DJI has met with much worse after being included on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List late last year.) The lesson here is that contests are best held after you’ve established a little bit of awareness.

While my example is merely an instance of a digital campaign being tinged by popular paranoia, it is also a clear indicator of how a void of information and touchpoints will lead consumers to fill information gaps with what they “know” to be true. Even larger companies are affected by this.

This is just another reason supporting proactive and strategic communication ― they are crucial to even getting off on the right foot with most consumers.

Some think that misinterpretation of messaging is inevitable. But any proper communications strategy is based on research about audiences from primary and secondary sources that enable you to anticipate their biases and psychosocial tendencies to craft an effective message with minimal confusion. One example of this is Georgetown University’s “RACE model” for strategic communication:

Some have given up hope on proactive control of their image, namely Elon Musk, who famously disbanded his entire PR team last year, preferring to close the door to traditional media and instead tweet to the public directly. Well, that same man is now attempting to hire an “Energy Customer Support Specialist,” a metaphorical fire engine, i.e. someone who would tackle the problems that pop up around his social media presence on a regular basis. 

From the perspective of a comms professional, this is a rather ineffectual tactic as it attempts to sweep up messes in post that a properly functioning communications team could have prevented. But Elon is a serial entrepreneur at heart, so we wait on the sidelines and see if this new venture will end in success or confirm that the core of communications strategy is ultimately based on innate human traits, and as such not swayed largely by technological advancement.

I’d love to hear how you’ve been met with surprising reactions in your comms activities, how you source and vet information, your opinion on Musk’s decision, or anything else in the comments below.


One response to “Navigating the Online Tower of Babel”

  1. being trilingual doesn't mean you'll get across. Regina tells us why. — Trend Watch From Tokyo Avatar

    […] and Corporate Communications program. I particularly like the Georgetown Strategic Framework (note: see this post for more on the Framework) to develop communications plans. I firmly believe that successful […]

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