Jeff Glaze is a training, technical and leadership consultant. He is an advocate for innovative and lasting solutions for conflict resolution. Jeff seeks to create a culture of constructive conflict within families and organizations.
2016 has been a year of turmoil. This election sure seems like one of the most controversial elections in my memory. Besides the election, the constant barrage of memes and talking point posts about a hundred odd social controversies show the dark side of social media and society—can a complicated issue really be reduced to a mic-drop meme or talking point? At the end of 2016, were families snugly sitting by a cozy fire expressing affection, or were they sitting at the cozy fire smugly proclaiming talking points?
In 2008, during the housing crash, there was a job listing looking for people to use social media posts to steer societal issues in foreign countries—like regime change by twitter post. I recall hoping that sort of tactic would never be used on Americans (not that I was real comfortable about it being used anywhere). Over the past 8 years, it does seem that social media has increasingly been used to steer mistrust, to push societal issues, and to gather astroturf (artificial grass roots) support for causes. Social media has become a sort of war zone with users unknowingly or knowingly conscripted into battle by public relations firms on either side of any given cause or political issue. We could call it virtual propaganda or psychological operations. Friends are shout-posting about things that they would never walk into a room crowded with 500 friends and shout about.
How did this happen? One possibility is that people really want to feel like they are making a difference and want to rescue something or someone. But does shout-posting really help? Using myself as an example, say I have 500 friends and after a month of the above-mentioned “conscription” into someone else’s cause, 375 of them have unfollowed my posts or blocked the PR firm’s talking points pages. Who am I reaching then? In real life, what would happen if I walked into a room crowded with 500 friends and and blasted my opinion?
Social media is similar—friends: 1) unfollow (walk out) 2) are never online/apathetic, 3) are on my side, or 4) are busy flaming my posts. At some point, I end up in an echo chamber (and none of us are immune to the echo chamber). The likes, shares and “high five” comments validate my ego (but growing and learning don’t happen much in an echo chamber). FLAME comments validate my noble pursuit of rescuing my cause—persecution is a reward for the social media martyr. From this position, pride envelopes me and it seems impossible that I am changing hearts and minds of anyone. Is there a better way?
To avoid pride and to effectively influence hearts and minds using social media, three things might help. The first is to avoid being conscripted by those PR firms. Friends are more likely to listen and reflect when they hear my thoughts about an issue, not memes and talking points issued like marching orders from the PR firms. The second thing to work at is not seeing issues in all or nothing terms. Really—it is pretty ridiculous to think that “my” side is all good and the other side is all evil. Arguably, humans like to make life into storybook tales where they charge in as the all-good rescuer to save the all-good damsel-in-distress from the all-bad dragon. Ask yourself: how many all-good damsels-in-distress incapable of self-defense have you really ever met? Don’t rescue them, instead: mentor, coach, or influence. The final thing is to work towards having meaningful discussions about issues that are really important. Friends want friendly discussion, not a bullhorn blasting in their face. How many times have you seen a person change an extreme opinion about something in one conversation. Coercion is likely to make them cling to their position even tighter.
Conflict positions often lead people to take extreme defensive positions. Inside the bunker it feels safe to take long shots at the enemy. But wait…these people are supposed to be friends right? Meaningful discussion happens somewhere in between the echo chamber and the FLAME wars. People—both me and my friends—learn best outside of the bunker. People listen and reflect on words from those they trust and respect and ignore or attack the people shouting at them.
Using a leadership comparison, being in the “yes” man, high five echo chamber will lead to pride and failure. Trusted and respected leaders reach hearts and minds; loudmouth leaders lose hearts and minds. Effective use of social media for social change means being a trusted and respected (humble too) friend and not that loud mouth conscript. This is how to actually win.
To learn more about the author of this article, Jeff Glaze.