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Public Affairs Insights from the Centre

2 Sep 2014

The human media

George Onisiforou

A study by the US-based Pew Research Centre challenges the perception of social media as a platform for dynamic political discussion and debate.

The study explored whether social media can produce different enough discussion fora that broaden public discourse – the premise being that those with minority views would find it easier to voice an opinion when using social media. However, the study’s main insight suggests individuals are less willing to discuss politics in social media than in person, and those who might otherwise remain silent are not even tempted to break their silence using social media.

More importantly, study participants who believed their online friends and followers disagreed with them on an issue were less likely to state their view in any context, suggesting social media users who are tuned in to the opinions of others are more hesitant to speak up if they have a differing view.

Although limited in scope – focusing on the single public issue of Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread surveillance of Americans’ private records – the study provides a much needed perspective on social media, a phenomenon that despite its proliferation remains in its development phase.

The study implies – but does not prove – several cautions over the effects of social media:

• The political power of social media fora as initiators of democracy and freedom may have been exaggerated and misunderstood, including in their significance during mass protests (e.g. Arab Spring) and in the necessity of their control by authoritarian governments and regimes (e.g. the recent ban of Twitter in Turkey).

• Social media’s limitations in encouraging dynamic debate are greater than the limitations of face-to-face debates. This suggests that social media may not offer better alternative arenas for policy discussion or any other form of debate, at least at this point in time. This has further implications on how social media is used by governments to engage the public in two-way dialogue.

• Social media should be used with caution and not as an alternative to face-to-face discussion for debate within teams, including in the work environment – an insight internal communications practitioners may already be familiar with.

Perhaps the study’s greatest implication - and the most valuable to communication practitioners - is that the use of social media is predominantly driven by human behaviour, and not the other way around. This suggests that social media are principally human media before being social, and that for better communication it is more important to understand human behaviour than technologies.

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