Social Cloisters

With global internet penetration crossing 50% in 2016, more than half the world is connected through cyberspace. From one perspective, this connectivity is an unprecedented leveller, breaking down barriers, freeing up information, and exposing everyone to more opinions and viewpoints on local and global issues.

Yet there is also a tendency to cloister.

Social media encourages people to connect and to coalesce into what I call “social cloisters” — groups that are relatively small, insulated and share similar opinions and views. Fuelled by the phenomenal growth of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the net has become home to hundreds of millions of these cloisters.

On social networks, people form groups and choose their friends. The platforms filter and personalize their experiences, and induce them to like/not like content and block those they disagree with.

The outcome of such networks, social cloisters tend to be closets inhabited by likeminded people. Members feed on each other’s content, share stories, and hothouse thoughts, feelings and ideas which become amplified and reinforced by transmission and repetition, a phenomenon referred to as the echo chamber effect.

People are increasingly spending time within their cloisters, sharing their day-to-day experiences, their thoughts and their feelings, and by doing so, influencing and reinforcing each other’s mindsets.

What distinguishes this meso-level of communication from conventional media is its vulnerability to misinformation. By and large social networks, unlike newspapers and TV, eschew wider editorial responsibility for the content they distribute. As a result people are more likely to be fed misleading content, propaganda and outright lies — the rise of so-called “fake news”.

Social cloisters have an inherent tendency to be divisive in nature. The echo chambers result in hyper-partisan behaviours, with members of the cloister embracing sharply polarized views on a variety of subjects while alternative or opposing views are supressed or underrepresented.

What is becoming clear is that the reinforcement of cloistering by “fake news” and misinformation is having a profound influence on society as a whole. The US election of 2016 and 2022 are a case in point.

Many reasons have been sighted as to why pollsters and election forecasters missed Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. There are however, two noteworthy factors that should be pointed out.

Firstly, one of the implications of the fracturing and cloistering of society, both for governments as well as marketers, is that it is hard to predict the inclinations and behaviours of people, and draw conclusions for the population as a whole. Statistically speaking, not only is a much larger sample required, it is also more difficult in splintered populations to ensure that these samples are truly representative.

Secondly, as we know from qualitative research, it is not easy to unlock people’s minds. Polls tell us only what people claim they will do. While there is usually a strong relationship between these claims and what people will actually do, the bias is hard to predict.

In the case of Trump, the bias would have been substantially accentuated, considering his public image and the battering that he received from the media for his numerous indiscretions. His rival, Hillary Clinton, was not the only person who considered it “deplorable” to vote for Trump.

In this context a small but significant proportion of Trump’s supporters would have been reluctant to express their intent to vote for him because saying so might be embarrassing, and because it might be deemed socially or intellectually inappropriate. Within their social cloister, supported by others of like minds, they feel secure expressing their choices and opinions — but outside of the cloister it is a different matter entirely.

So what divided the states of America?

In addition to a number of other factors that fall outside the scope of this text, it is apparent that the intensified cloistering fuelled by social networks had a significant effect. Studies have shown that social networks play an enormous role in distributing news and information (with limited regard to levels of accuracy) and hence informing and shaping opinion. One report earlier this year from Pew Research found that almost half of American adults — 44 per cent — cite Facebook as their primary source of news.

In the wake of the US election several commentators have highlighted the surge in fake news online in the final months of campaigning, including the emergence of some operations designed to manufacture and distribute fake news specifically for profit. Within social cloisters, powered by a steady stream of genuine as well as fake information/misinformation, the echo chamber effect would have been in full force, amplifying opinions of its members and disregarding others.

The cloistering of society is a product of the new media. While some may see it as a social problem, it is a social reality. There will be no turning back of the clock.

For politicians and marketers, depending on how they adapt, it can be both an opportunity and a threat. The marketing rules and perspectives that apply to social cloistering, demand changes in methods and style — listening, reaching out to and engaging via the new media such that messages penetrate the targeted cloisters.

This is not easy, particularly when confronted by such diversity and polarisation of opinion, yet it is a challenge that must be addressed. Voters and customers cannot be swayed without empathy and understanding — and they certainly will not be won over by being labelled “deplorable”.

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