We shouldn’t delude ourselves that social media has created a level playing field: brands, users and the social networks themselves need to take action on information diversity now.
Social media has given everyone a voice; but when users only hear voices which echo their own the platform which promised to democratise media, could in fact have the polar opposite effect. Diversity may top the thought leadership agenda but when it comes to information diversity and the impact of the filter bubble on how people understand the world around them, the media industry could well be accused of spending too long discussing the problem as opposed to driving tangible change.
Similarly when it comes to brands, the uncomfortable truth is that they can be reticent about becoming involved in diversity issues for fear of coming unstuck. If you stick to what you know already works (a filter bubble of a different kind) the chances of failure are lower, or so we believe. This is also true of social media users; we all have a tendency to follow the people and brands which share, rather than challenge, our worldview. It’s an increasingly unsustainable state of play with social media akin to a digital comfort blanket reaffirming our pre-existing prejudices.
Beyond the filter bubble
The degree to which social media has changed our consumption and comprehension of information cannot be underestimated; nor should we underestimate the negatives that come with a lack of information diversity.
From a creative perspective, building a better understanding of other people’s views stops our industry becoming lazy. The best sparks of creativity come from being challenged in your thinking by people with different life experiences than your own. And Heineken demonstrates this brilliantly in its new Worlds Apart experiment (below) that challenges assumptions and stereotypes.
We also need to address the fact that for many people technology has provided little but an empty promise. Many feel excluded because they do not have the means or the critical faculty to participate on a level playing field. Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake devastatingly shows us how those who do not have access to, or do not understand how to use technology, can find it hard to survive in today’s world. Yet it’s a situation which brands, agencies and social networks have the power to address through more outreach programmes, training and marketing investment.
Driving critical thinking
The evolution of society is never one of linear progression: the social-media driven, buffet-style, fast-food service of news seems to be eroding our critical judgement and capacity for reasoning when it comes to assessing validity. But just as young people have become more considered and educated about the food they eat, as an industry we must now do more to educate the next generation on how to better navigate and manage their digital diet.
Research from Stanford University conducted last year revealed that teens absorb social media news without considering the source. According to the study of 7,804 students from middle school to college, 82 per cent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labelled “sponsored content” and a real news story. The study, the biggest of its kind, revealed that many students judged the credibility of tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source.
Nearly four in ten high school students believed, based on the headline, that a photo of deformed daisies on a photo-sharing site provided strong evidence of toxic conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, even though no source or location was given for the photo.
Schools, educators and brands have done so much to teach young people about safety online but now we must pour the same resource into teaching students to better assess the credibility of the content they are consuming and to think about the source and the agenda it might have. To better understand that all information is not created equal. The social networks themselves must also do more to recognise and realise their role not just as platforms but also as media owners in their own right.
There are also opportunities for agencies, brands and entrepreneurs to help solve this problem. From developing an algorithm to better interpret, understand and communicate the political leanings of a social media account or profile to developing robust education programmes for schools nationwide. Journalists are taught to check and double check their sources; the bare minimum being two unconnected sources of information. On social media no such checks and balances exist; we have a responsibility to address this lack of context across the industry and to teach people to exercise their critical faculties.
The business case for diversity
When it comes to diversity and inclusivity in advertising, we have seen significant change over the last few years but we should not mistake the industry’s growing interest in the topic as evidence that the job is done. To better drive the information diversity agenda we must continue to ensure that the industry reflects and represents a diverse world-view.
Recent research from Lloyds Banking Group showed that minority groups appear in only 19 per cent of ads, that only 0.06 per cent of people portrayed are disabled and a similar number applies to the LGBT community. Just 0.29 per cent are single parents. These numbers are significantly out of kilter with real-world proportions: disabled people represent 17.9 per cent, the LGBT community 1.7 per cent and single parents 25 per cent according to the report.
This is not just an issue of taking the moral high ground. Diversity in advertising makes good business sense too. The Lloyds report goes on to state that 65 per cent of people said they felt more favourable towards brands that reflected diversity while 67 per cent simply expected advertisers to treat various groups within society more fairly. The strength of these expectations is very visible on social media – a good example is the outrage levelled against Protein World for their ‘Beach Body Ready’ ads which led to a protest in Hyde Park and a petition on Change.org that attracted more that 70,000 signatures.
Beware of the “Troll Trap”
On a personal level too we must all do more to tackle the issue of information diversity head on. If adland is indeed a bubble it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to prick it on a daily basis, however painful that may be. This was brought into sharp focus for me at a panel at SXSW chaired by Yasmin Green, head of R&D at Jigsaw – a Google Alphabet company with the aim of making the world a safer place through technology – who introduced to the stage two people responsible for fake news.
One was the founder of the National Report and Denver Guardian, the man who broke the fake story about Hillary Clinton being investigated by the FBI. The other was the owner of a Twitter account for the 15th State of Georgia (there are only 14).
Hearing their unfiltered views was a revelation, and even though a lot of people walked out, it was an important, albeit uncomfortable discussion. These discussions may be difficult but the fact remains that when we only understand the world through the lens of our own experience we are left with a myopic view.
If on the flipside we invest the time, effort and critical thinking into understanding the views of others, addressing the uncomfortable truths and contradictions, a true kaleidoscope of experiences opens up to us. So let’s stop discussing the problem and instead dedicate time and resources to building understanding and compassion. This way we can hope to arrive at a fairer, more objective and reasoned response to the content we share online.
Mobbie Nazir is CSO of We Are Social