Political Polarization? The Medium Is the Message

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.

Facebook unfriending
Source: Clay Jones, ClayToonz.com
Facebook unfriending – the struggle is real

[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.

 

Trump backers share these media sources on Twitter, Harvard finds
Trump backers cite these sources, according to “Partisanship, Propaganda, & Disinformation: Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” DASH terms of use. | Credit: Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University by Robert Faris, et al
Cinton backers cited these sources on Twitter, Harvard finds
Clinton backers cite these sources on Twitter, according to “Partisanship, Propaganda, & Disinformation: Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” DASH terms of use. | Credit: Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University by Robert Faris, et al

5-Day Delivery: Cost Cutting or Congressional Gambit?

As a citizen and a close follower of postal goings on, I realize the United States Postal Service and Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe ultimately are not to blame for the 5-Day Delivery announcement which transpired on February 6. Postal customers, labor unions, direct marketers and Americans in general have reasons to be angry—or at least very concerned—as to what is really going on here

As a citizen and a close follower of postal goings on, I realize the United States Postal Service and Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe ultimately are not to blame for the five-day delivery announcement which transpired on February 6. Postal customers, labor unions, direct marketers and Americans in general have reasons to be angry—or at least very concerned—as to what is really going on here.

We all know that it is Congress and the White House—as a whole, not any lawmaker in particular—that largely caused the Postal Service’s recent default and current fiscal mess. Their inability or unwillingness to stop the mandating of 75-year pre-funding of USPS retiree benefits, and the subsequent raiding of those funds for the federal government’s own spending sprees elsewhere, deserves much of the blame.

Cost-cutting and diminishing services to U.S. citizens have been forced on the Postal Service, because a “fiscal cliff” already has arrived at L’Enfant Plaza.

Yes, there are other macroeconomic issues in play at the Postal Service—the digital migration of First-Class Mail, electronic payments and the Great Recession’s most recent effects and after-effects, for example. All the same, forcing such draconian budget mandates on the Postal Service is a serious miscalculation that was (unfortunately) included in the 2006 postal reform law. No other federal agency is held to the same pre-funding benchmark, and even fewer responsibly financed and accountable private pension schemes (there are still a few around) ever look to seven decades to the future.

This needed fixing five years ago, when the economy started to teeter and such rosy views of postal finances quickly began to sour. Here we are in 2013, and we’re still waiting for Congress to act.

The White House hasn’t been helpful either.

Now we’re faced with five-day delivery come August—and we’re left wondering if it can be stopped, reversed, prevented or mitigated, even if Congress and the White House were able and wished to intervene.

Will the reported $2 billion in said-savings really transpire—and make a difference? Has anyone considered the economic trade-offs? We all know many weekend advertisers that relish a spot in the mailbox on Saturdays—and this generates a lot of commerce. Can it all be simply pushed to a Friday?

The reality is that the Postal Service, as much as it seeks to manage itself as a business, remains a quasi-public institution, a part of our Constitution, and subject to both cycles of Congressional meddling and Congressional relief, the latter now being in short supply.

It’s quite amazing that the Postal Service is as efficient and as affordable as any postal service in the world, public or private—delivering communications to our homes six days a week. Still, it must deal with political representation that well may be intended, but which only seems to punt from crisis to crisis—or worse, after each crisis has rendered its most devastating effects.

Here we are in a downward cycle … again. This time our daily mail—and direct mail advertising along with it—is being expedited, by Congress, to the dilemma faced by dying daily newspapers in stagnant metropolitan markets—going, going, gone, at least on Saturdays.

Except this is our Postal Service, belonging to the citizens of the United States on paper. Is this squeeze on hardcopy communication inevitable—and our only choice? Or will some in Congress and the Obama Administration wake up to the fact that the Postal Service is a secret weapon for many brands (and political candidates), as well as a service to its citizens, and, therefore, do all their Constitutional best to ensure a viable future here?

By the way, I LOVE this recent piece in Esquire—required reading for our lawmakers: http://www.esquire.com/print-this/post-office-business-trouble-0213?page=all.

Timing Really Is Everything

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.” In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer.

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.”

In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer. Apparently, there had been some concern that people would mistake these efforts for the big Census Bureau mailing that was due to drop. Then, someone who actually had that complaint called the number on the RNC’s donation form, only to discover that it was for a phone sex line. Coming on the heels of news about lavish RNC spending, it’s been a tough few weeks for the party.

It’s easy to dismiss the second problem as merely a vendor mistake, one that appeared on only some of the mailings. It’s also easy to brush aside criticism of using “Census” on the outer. After all, it’s legal — it had passed muster with the USPS. And, it doesn’t really look like the Census mailer. It’s pretty obvious when opened that it’s just another issues poll, with leading questions, and a request for money. There’s nothing wrong with that, both parties have been mailing surveys for many years.

But it illustrates a bigger problem. A great national political party shouldn’t rely on a gimmick, like putting “Census”, or the IRS form — like “(2009) Return Enclosed” on the outer envelope to get someone to open it. Seriously, no one at the RNC thought this through, and saw this bad publicity coming? And, given how some of the Republican base feels about the Census, and especially, the IRS, it’s an especially puzzling choice of a teaser.

Twenty-five years ago, in the newsletter Who’s Mailing What!, Roger Craver wrote that to have a successful direct mail appeal, the “donors of principle,” the heart of any political organization, must be motivated by writing that conveys mission, selectivity, urgent need and effectiveness. The GOP was way ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard for decades, but as shown in the 2008 presidential race, not anymore. It’s going to be very interesting to see how both parties will energize the faithful in this election year.