Engage outside the echo chambers!

The American people have spoken, democracy has taken its due course, and Donald J. Trump has been elected as the 45th president of the United States. While many are celebrating at this landslide election victory, others are trying to make sense of what has happened.

A number of polls had forecasted a win for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential race. The world of analytics had pointed to the successful Trump social media campaign characterized by high engagement levels. Since the start of the election campaign, Trump had actively tweeted about a range of issues often attracting controversy.

19th century American showman and circus owner was certainly proven right this election: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. As much as some may feel uncomfortable about speaking about certain topics, many appreciated Trump’s straightforwardness even if it seemed “politically incorrect”. Trump understood the widespread mistrust of established news media, and his rhetoric had resonated with a vast population.

What most media pundits missed was the importance of engagement and where and how it mattered. Trump had far more followers on social media (15m on Twitter) and Hillary (Twitter 11m). A Google Trends analysis reveals that interest overtime for Trump across the US (and even abroad) was three times higher than that for Hillary. Not only was Trump the most Googled candidate but also the most-mentioned on Twitter and Facebook. Trump capitalized on the unique affordance of Twitter as a concise 140-character medium and connected directly with his followers.

A social media post, a retweet, a comment, and a like all form important elements of online engagement. While one camp seemed to be high on engagement, the other simply played safe and did not manage to break through the boundaries. Towards the third debate, the democratic camp had higher engagement levels but they may not have translated into more votes. What could have ensured a Clinton victory was engagement not between Democratic voters but across the political divide and with undecided voters. This would have required not only likes and shares but a deeper engagement that requires interaction and meaningful dialogue.

We live in an age of media and audience fragmentation. If you have ever blocked a Facebook friend or unfollowed a Twitter friend simply because they thought differently, then whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are trapped in the echo chamber. A Pew Research Center survey conducted revealed that a majority of Americans indicated having less in common with others especially over political disagreements. Many social media users thought of online discussions as disrespectful, and 83% of social media users said that they ignore political posts they disagreed with, and another 39% had blocked or minimized content due to politics. Add to this the various algorithms that determine what we see from our social media friends based on our clicks. All these statistics point towards a lack of engagement where it matters most.

The country stands divided more than ever. Issues that concern us all need to be discussed within the norms of decency and civility. It is time to bring back the American ideals that made America one of the strongest nations on earth—respecting the freedoms of fellow Americans and hearing the other side with a big heart. Engagement should not only be between people who think alike, but more importantly with people who think different. That is the only way the positive power of social media can be harnessed for good. It is about time we engaged outside our echo chambers.

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