November 24, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

The False Consensus Effect, Facebook, and the decline of civil discourse

The False Consensus Effect, Facebook, and the decline of civil discourse

Broad topic, I know, but the false consensus effect has been on my mind quite a bit since a Tweet pointed me to this article in the Financial Post. I recorded a Media Monitoring Minute for FIR based on it, but it has been brought to the forefront of my thoughts again, due to a few items on Facebook.

First, by now I’m sure most people have seen the application that sorts through your friends and comes up with a nifty little set of three pie charts. Here are screen grabs from two friends of mine, please note the political pie chart at right:

Dem FB capture.JPG
Repub FB screenshot.JPG
I’m not included in either one. Why? Because my political views are listed as “other” on Facebook–I’m not sure if Independent wasn’t an option or if I just decided “other” was a better fit. Regardless, I’m not included in the chart, and it is obvious how this fits into the false consensus effect–especially in the second screen grab. I’m tempted to list my political affiliation as Democrat just to inject *some* blue into that second chart.

The second item on Facebook that triggered this post is an exchange that is currently being carried out in the comments on a friend’s mobile photo upload. The picture is of a random sign, the type of which you see in cities everywhere because people cannot be trusted to use common sense when it comes to such basic activities such as picking up after oneself and not feeding and messing with wildlife. The caption added to the photo was political–not overly so, just the sort of back and forth jabbing we now see all the time. But it definitely injected politics where there initially was none, and the comments have started to devolve into a negative set of generalizations.

We’re seeing this far too often. Whether it is the politics over a sign or a subset of customers angry about the perceived message of an advertising campaign (Motrin Moms, I’m looking at you), it’s far too easy to get people whipped up. Is it perhaps because their social networks are allowing them to feel more comfortable in their opinions–the warm, comfy blanket of a false consensus–than really exists?

That people feel so sure they are in the right, in no small part because they are (virtually) surrounded by people who feel the same way (or that they assume feel the same way, see screen grabs A and B, above) has in my opinion contributed significantly to a harshness of tone. Add to this mixture the pernicious nonsense of personal branding and a culture steeped in narcissism, and it is no wonder that civil discourse–agreeing to disagree but not be disagreeable about it–is as rare as, oh, I don’t know, a blog post devoid of opinion. Hen’s teeth. A pig with a purple pocketbook. You get the idea…

So what’s the message to brands? I guess it’s be cautious of drawing brand-defining conclusions based on what you are seeing said about your product on blogs, Twitter, or forums. Sure, social media can give you a sense of what your customers are saying. But keep in mind the false consensus effect, as it might be just a handful of customers who feel your product is great. Or only a handful that are angry. Or, they could be just wrong.

As with politics, there is always the possibility of the silent majority. Just because it seems like the village is at the drawbridge with pitchforks and torches doesn’t mean it’s actually so. And just because it seems like everyone thinks your latest pink dog sweater is the shizz on a forum doesn’t mean it’s going to fly off the shelves of WalMart.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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