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How Social Media Impacts Our Unconscious Biases & How Diverse Marketing Strategies Can Help

How Social Media Impacts Our Unconscious Biases & How Diverse Marketing Strategies Can Help

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A team of neuroscientists from MIT recently found that it takes only 13 milliseconds for our brains to process images. Before we are even aware of what we are looking at, we have already started unconsciously making assumptions about it.

In a time when we are exposed to more images on a daily basis than ever before, how does social media impact this phenomenon and does it increase the likelihood of us experiencing unconscious bias? 

An Overview of Unconscious Bias

First of all, it’s worth establishing exactly what unconscious bias is. Put simply, our unconscious biases are all the assumptions and associations that we subconsciously make. Our brains are hardwired to continuously make connections. While many of these are harmless, when these associations are made about people, our brains can make connections based on age, ethnicity, sexuality and gender that are often false and potentially damaging.

Over the past two decades, implicit bias has become an increasingly hot topic in the workplace. Employers have been keen to figure out the best ways to address the issue in order to diversify their workforce and maximise harmony between colleagues. The implicit bias test, created by Anthony Greenwald in 1995, and mentioned in his subsequent book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, has informed corporate training sessions around the world to identify tools to counteract implicit bias.

The Social Media ‘Echo Chamber’

Another much-discussed phenomenon in recent years has been the idea of ‘echo chambers.’ Social media users are increasingly and predominantly being exposed on their feeds to opinions that reinforce their already-held worldview. This has mostly been attributed to the algorithms of social media networks, which base their suggestions and ads on what users have already engaged with.

While this practice may be beneficial to the platforms themselves, it has raised serious concerns that it may have a long term impact on society. It could be continually reinforcing people’s points of view, exposing them to increasingly fringe political doctrines, giving them a false impression that the majority of people agree with them, and could also be making individuals distrustful of those who are different to them.

In summary, an algorithm designed to bring like-minded people together and show them content they will enjoy may now be working to separate people into increasingly isolated online ‘bubbles.’

The Connection Between Social Media and Unconscious Bias

The same algorithms that create political and cultural echo chambers also serve to reinforce our unconscious biases on an interpersonal level. If our feed on Facebook or Instagram is only showing us content that reinforces our worldview, we are also more likely to be shown images of people who look like ourselves and lead similar lives. With the average adult in 2020 spending 3 hours per day on social media, this amounts to a significant portion of the images each of us are processing and being consciously and unconsciously influenced by.

These concerns are all the more heightened in regards to Instagram’s use of image recognition technology as a major part of its algorithm. Rather than basing the contents of a user’s feed on what topics they tend to interact with (using hashtags and keywords, for instance), they assess which posts users are drawn to based on what those posts ‘look like.’ Users end up only seeing a version of reality that chimes with them, and so, In practical terms, this means that people are more likely to only see and engage with content featuring people of their own ethnicity or cultural views.

How Can The Marketing and Advertising Industries Help?

 Aside from changing the algorithm, the careful use of diverse marketing and advertising strategies can be an essential tool in fighting against unconscious bias. Brands should prioritise tackling this issue, especially because the Edelman report found that 60% of US consumers in 2020 felt brands had a responsibility to invest in efforts to combat the causes of racial injustice.

But where should brands start? Using counter-stereotypical imagery could be a good strategy. Research conducted by the University of Strathclyde found that implicit gender bias in individuals decreased significantly after they were shown pictures of men and women in professions that went against typical gender stereotypes. Deliberately flipping age, gender or racial stereotypes in marketing strategies is a powerful way of changing the associations that people make with certain activities and lifestyles.

Meanwhile, adopting inclusive language is a simple yet effective way of making everyone you’re communicating with feel included and welcome.

Lastly, build on what people already love about diversity: “We need to excite employees about difference,” says Stephen Frost, Chief Executive of Frost Included. “Not every demographic is going to be open or responsive to an overtly stereotype-subverting stance, but it remains possible to play to the things they are likely to already love: travel, foreign food, and exchange of personal stories and differing points of view. Having an in-depth understanding of how your demographic is likely to respond to a campaign is essential.”

Showing people in positions of leadership in your marketing content is also a good strategy: research shows that individuals respond well and feel empowered when they have role models who share their background and identity to look up to. Using your marketing strategy to show inspirational, positive figures in positions of power can be highly effective in fighting against implicit bias.

Add Diversity Wherever You Can

Seek out effective partnerships and use your platform as a way to amplify a range of voices from a variety of backgrounds. This can be an effective way of not only helping a voice to gain exposure that otherwise may be silenced, but to also expand your client base and help people engage with one another outside of their social media ‘bubbles.’

Perhaps most importantly though, employing a diverse marketing team from various backgrounds is your best tool in ensuring that your content is authentic and inclusive. Having individuals who are culturally fluent within different demographics will help your content to stay fresh and relevant!

Time To Do More

While there are a number of key marketing strategies that can be implemented to counterbalance potentially detrimental unconscious biases, the algorithms remain the most important factor. As of this year, Instagram has announced that it will be working on its algorithm to make their platform fairer for all. With a little help from diverse marketing strategies, social media may start actually to reduce the damaging effects of unconscious bias.

Speaking about the power for good on social media, Marjorie Strachan, Global Head of Inclusion at Royal Bank of Scotland said, “…technology and social media can also be a force for good. If people choose to be curious, they can expand their horizons and tap into much more diverse networks.”


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