Modern media is making it ever easier for people to reject things that they don’t want to hear. We can scan and filter out sentiments or information that we find objectionable or which doesn’t fit with our existing world view. But rather than actively assess information before accepting or rejecting it (as proposed by Social Judgement Theory) people seem increasingly to avoid, filter or deny something that they reject out of hand.
Not only do people seem to predominantly seek information and opinion with which they agree, but they avoid anything that causes them cognitive dissonance or discomfort. Or if they do come across such information, they may object to it, even going so far as to call for it to be banned or removed from future view, and the originators to be prosecuted or punished.
I’m not just talking about extremist views – such as the blocking of neo-Nazi accounts on Twitter in Germany. Rather, there is the recent tendency to complain to the police about negative comments made in Tweets. In some cases, these may be justified, but in many situations rather than abuse, there is a level of distaste or discomfort with what has been said online.
In complaining or even when commenting on an issue, people show an unwillingness to engage; their mind is made up. End of story. They come across like a small child uttering the word NO, when confronted with something they don’t like the look of.
The impact of rejection and denial for PR practitioners is significant. If someone will not even consider an alternate point of view, let alone assimilate it and change their mind, we cannot enter into a dialogue with them. Most persuasive approaches to public relations rely on people attending to information – the same is true if we are managing reputations or building relationships.
On the other hand, if people never consider other perspectives, they are prey to propaganda and accepting – without question – information from particular sources or which appears to confirm existing opinion or prejudices. That may seem ideal to a PR practitioner who can rely on advocates (fans, followers, etc) to champion a cause and drown out counter-views.
We could argue that online media enables minority views to be heard, with focused communities forming around relevant issues. Where previously, the mainstream media perhaps only reflected the majority public opinion, today, activists and others who oppose something, can state their position. Like-minded individuals can flock together and avoid the ‘spiral of silence‘ that prevents people from challenging the dominant viewpoint.
These points can seem particularly relevant when reflecting on the current news relating to Lance Armstrong and, in the UK, Jimmy Savile. It would seem that those who did speak out before were coerced into remaining silent, or were ignored in the face of charity work and the influence of a famous personality. Indeed, mainstream media would seem complicit in such situations – if the later claims of ‘we knew this’ are to be viewed as anything other than pure hypocrisy and cowardliness.
In theory, social media enable challengers to conventional opinion to be heard. In practice, will they continue to be rejected and their opinions denied when they go against a majority, or a fixed viewpoint?
What may be interesting is to look for tipping points in public opinion. When those who had a strong view on a subject begin to hear the whispers and gradually the shouts of another message. The danger here can be that the shift is like a switch and the previous perspective that was accepted and advocated is rejected and the denial goes 180 degrees about face. The hero becomes villain. This may not rely on irrefutable evidence or a considered argument however, but on sheer volume of voicing the other opinion. Then, it becomes unacceptable to hold the original viewpoint – and the PR practitioner who had friends and followers, now has enemies or Tweets alone.
I am reminded (not for the first time in considering public relations) of Orwell’s 1984. Re-writing of the past is reflective of a revisionist approach to history. The ‘mutability of the past’ reminds us that there is no objective interpretation of information – it depends on how it is presented. We can look back at the words and deeds of Armstrong and Savile and now see things that were invisible to us before. It is like lifting a veil, we think – and now we have a clear view. In these cases, perhaps we do.
But the impact on PR of rejection and denial – alongside confirmation bias – is potentially very damaging. It is another step along the road to losing trust and critical reflection. And if we don’t really know what to believe, but make up our minds anyway, doesn’t that simply confirm that public relations is nothing more than propaganda?