With over 60% of the world’s population connected to the internet, cyberspace has become an unprecedented leveller, breaking down barriers, freeing up information, and exposing people to diverse opinions and views on local and global issues. Fuelled by the phenomenal growth of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., the net is also sprouting groups of like-minded individuals who feed on each other’s content and hothouse thoughts, feelings, beliefs and convictions, amplifying and reinforcing them in an echo chamber effect. Cyberspace has become home to hundreds of millions of these relatively insulated groups that I refer to as “social cloisters”.
Social cloisters are vulnerable to misinformation or “fake news”, as social networks eschew wider editorial responsibility for the content they distribute. The echoes within cloisters, and the resulting amplification of views, thoughts and feelings, clouded by misinformation, has led to hyper-partisan behaviours, with members embracing sharply polarized beliefs and convictions on various subjects while suppressing or underrepresenting opposing views.
Social cloistering is having a profound influence on society as a whole, as seen by events across the globe. Take for instance the US elections of 2016 and 2020 where the citizens of the United States stood divided in their beliefs on several “facts” including whether or not the 2020 election was “stolen”.
Social networks play an enormous role in distributing news and information, often with limited regard for accuracy, and thus inform and shape opinions. A 2021 Pew Research report found that 48% of American adults cite social media as their source of “news”. While this was a 5-percentage point decline compared to 2020, it remains alarming high.
For politicians and marketers, the intensified cloistering fuelled by social networks can be both an opportunity and a threat. To effectively reach and influence a society that exists within social cloisters, marketing strategies and perspectives must adapt and include methods such as active listening, reaching out, and engaging with targeted groups to ensure messages are able to penetrate and resonate with their intended audience. This is not an easy task, particularly when confronted with such diversity and polarization of opinions.
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