Political Polarization? The Medium Is the Message
[Editor’s note: While this opinion piece is not explicitly about marketing this time, it’s important for marketers to note what’s happening with consumers and the context in which they’re seeing ads. Content marketers have had to keep an eye on this; most recently in April, concerning hate speech sites housing YouTube ads. Chuck McLeester doesn’t mention hate speech sites below.]
I was upset to learn that a good friend of mine is no longer speaking with his sister because of an argument over President Trump. He could no longer abide that she, like many members of the president’s “base,” continued to defend the President. How did we get to the place where families are being torn apart over politics? Look no further than where people get their news.
In the Washington Post column, The Fix, Aaron Blake writes on Aug. 22, “We increasingly live in two Americas. And those two Americas have very separate sources of news.”
Blake cites an extensive study by Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that examined 4.5 million tweets and looked at those who retweeted either Trump or Clinton. It then looked at the URLs that the users shared.
Not surprisingly, Trump and Clinton supporters relied on very different sources for their news. The tables below show the top 50 media sources shared by Trump and Clinton supporters. It’s interesting to note that Trump supporters sometimes cited “left of center” media, while Clinton supporters never cited “right of center” media. Eleven of the sources cited by Trump supporters were from “Left” or “Center Left” sources, perhaps refuting left-leaning mainstream media outlets like the The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.
This polarization of people by the media they consume makes me think of the work of Marshall McLuhan from the mid-1960s. McLuhan contended that the content in a medium was less important than the change that was brought about by that medium.
As noted in the Wikipedia page on McLuhan, “… the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself — the content — and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are, in effect, being brought into the home to watch over dinner. Hence in “Understanding Media,” McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time.”
Anyone who has Facebook friends on opposite sides of the political spectrum is bound to witness this phenomenon. In fact, Facebook itself is the complicit medium, creating structural changes in the civility of political discourse among friends and family members.
So while it may be easy to blame Donald Trump or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for pitting brother against sister, shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at the media they’re consuming and the media they’re using for political discourse as the culprit?
Here are the tables that the Harvard study derived from the Twitter and URL data, Trump’s first, Clinton’s second.
In the charts below:
"Partisan Scores" are based upon how often a source was shared by Trump and Clinton supporters. Scores range from -1 for sources shared mostly by Clinton supporters to 1 for sources shared mostly by Trump supporters.