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Social Media in Government Reading Discussion: Farhad Manjoo’s “True Enough”

This week, we read Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society

Why I assigned this reading

This is the first book we’ve read that throws some cold water on social media in government. The central thesis–to which we’ve all been exposed–is that people have pretty much made up their minds about most issues, and no matter how much information they are given, they will not change their minds. To partisans on both sides of any given issue, good news from the government is simply propaganda that favors whichever party is in charge of the executive branch, while bad news is simply the bureaucrats in the government trying to undermine the work of the administration.

The media landscape is divided by chasms wider than the Grand Canyon, and the mountains that separate Right and Left are taller than the Rockies, and have fewer passes year to year. So how are social media practitioners to succeed in their jobs? And what even is that job? Is it to help people contextualize the reams of data put out by the government, or simply to help people find the data in the first place and make of it what they will?

The biases of the listeners

There’s always chatter about speakers’ biases (even when all they report is data, h/t Stephen Colbert at 5:13), but few people talk about the biases of the listeners. But True Enough discusses two types of listeners’ biases: selective exposure and selective perception.

Selective exposure is choosing which media listeners consume; do we watch only Fox News, or do we confine ourselves to a specific daily newspaper? Selective perception is seeing what we want to see. Upton Sinclair is credited with writing, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” How much more true if it’s not a person’s salary on the line, but their entire world-view?

So these are the forces arrayed against social media practitioners: first, that some of the people you want to reach–maybe even the most important people, the skeptics–you simply will not be able to reach. Second, that even if you reach them, they will not hear what you are saying. They may listen, but they will not hear.

So what are social media professionals to do?

Manjoo identifies two routes that people take to find and contextualize information, the central route, and the peripheral route. People use the central route by looking at data, or gathering first-hand experiences. For example, if you want to buy a car, the central route would be looking at specs, going to dealerships, and driving each car under consideration. People use the peripheral route by looking to trusted sources of information. In the car-buying example, they may look to their gear-head friends, Car and Driver magazine, or Consumer Reports. Each of these methods represents an important opportunity for social media practitioners in government.

Of course, using both methods is the best strategy, and there is an example of that in the book. What makes that example all the more salient, is that it involves social networks.

On pages 48-53, True Enough details how, during World War II, researchers were asked by the government to help American moms serve organ meat to their families. There were two obstacles to overcome. The first was purely educational: many American women didn’t know how to cook organ meat. This problem was easily solved, but on its own, it was insufficient. The far bigger problem was how to convince enough women that serving organ meat was not antithetical to their culture. Organ meat, especially in the 1940s, was not something that a good homemaker fed to her family. So how did the researchers address this problem? By talking not to individual women, but rather to social networks.

Gathered in groups, women were told about the shortages of meat and asked for their opinions on how to address the problem. When one suggested organ meat, the researcher leading the group heard all of the women’s objections and answered each as it came up, then asked the women to come to a decision as a group–not as individuals–on whether they would serve organ meat to their families. Women who attended the groups were far more likely than women who were contacted individually to have changed their behavior.

So what?

The lessons we can take from this story, I believe, are that, If we want to change attitudes or behavior, we should:

1. engage people as part of networks, not as isolated individuals
2. include network nodes as part of the conversation (harking back to Connected)
3. listen at least as much as we talk, so that we can respond meaningfully to people’s concerns
4. have as much data as possible, so that we are a credible central route for people who make decisions based on data
5. develop a deep and wide network, so that we are a comprehensive peripheral route for people who make decisions based on relationships

Finally, it bears remarking that we simply cannot hold ourselves to the impossible standard of reaching all the people all the time. Sometimes, we have to remember the line from Cool Hand Luke, sampled by Guns ‘N Roses: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach. . . .”

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James (Eddie) Barclay

I found the reading assignment very interesting and it validated my own strategy for our internal forum. In order to begin drawing interest to the new forum, I reached out to a select group of my colleagues who are very active in the realm of posting information and sharing their analysis of our field and where it’s going. At the time, I just assumed pulling those folks in would be a great start. This class, and this reading, has helped me understand that I’m developing nodes. Now that I know what I was doing instinctively, I can begin refining my strategy and making it more consistent to encourage greater engagement.