The sound of Social Media

It’s called ‘noise’. These days, the concept originally coined by Shannon and Weaver in their 1948 model, has been distilled to mean information surplus to our needs. It seems the model itself has become a victim of ‘noise’.

Originally built to explain the elements of communication and how miscommunication can occur, the Shannon-Weaver model (Football Marketing, 2018) begins with a ‘sender’ who initiates a message. The message is ‘encoded’ and sent via a ‘channel’ to a ‘receiver’. In between the message is ‘decoded’ and often subject to ‘noise’. Given the primary form of communication at its inception was radio, ‘noise’ was often the loss of part of a communication due to technical issues or literal noise on the line. The model also applies to face to face communication where information can be lost to poor hearing or a ‘receiver’ distracted by other stimuli in the environment. While physical loss of information is still a factor in communication, particularly in ‘channel’s’ that restrict the length of user posts, the volume of information available in the digital age has extended the concept of ‘noise’. Oversupply of information now distracts ‘receivers’ from hearing the full message, creating semantic errors in decoding.

Shannon Weaver

If you’d like to understand how ‘noise’ plays out in our everyday lives, just google Israel Folau. Despite an accomplished rugby career, you’ll find seventy percent of the first two pages of search cover his controversial twitter commentary. When questioned on the outcome for gay people after death, Folau recently sparked controversy, by stating “Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God” (News Hub, 2018). Given all he has achieved, the portion of content dedicated to his social media comment, regarding “God’s plan for all sinners” (Sporting News, 2018), could itself be considered ‘noise’. One might conclude he’s a church minister or social influencer rather than a professional rugby player.

Whether you share his opinion or not, some key themes have emerged, for and against his stance, which make this story an opportune case for the communication concepts, proposed by the Shannon-Weaver model (Football Marketing, 2018).

Firstly, there’s the ‘channel’ – social media platform Twitter. By restricting the number of characters a user is able to utilise per post, information can be lost through the brevity of a communication. Folau later explained his response in more detail. It was taken directly from a bible passage, which condemns homosexuality amongst other sins such as greed and adultery and that “it was never [his] intention to hurt anyone with the Instagram comment” (NZ Herald, 2018). While his explanation was acceptable to the Australian Rugby Union (ABC News, 2018), which was considering sanctions for Folau, after three weeks media is still reporting the aftermath of his comments through remarks from celebrities and the general public alike, increasing miscommunication of the facts, despite their availability in print web wide. The ‘noise’ refuses to die down.

As Burcher (2012) proposes in her extended version of the Shannon-Weaver model, the advent of social media has created an additional element in the model. A repost shares content with additional ‘receivers’ and provides a feedback loop, exposing new ‘receivers’ to ‘noise’ that may be compounded many times before they receive a message.

Despite Folau’s attempts to clarify the intent behind his statements, he has been repeatedly labelled homophobic within main stream and social media, and all new ‘receivers’ are influenced by this feedback loop, only sometimes understanding that the message they are receiving has been through another person’s filter. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word homophobic as “having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018) and “Folau says suggestions he is ‘homophobic and bigoted’ could ‘not be further from the truth’” (News Hub, 2018). In addition, Folau has commented on social media he “respect[s] all people for who they are and their opinions.” (NZ Herald, 2018), even when they differ from his own. Although none of the comments reported suggest Folau himself treats homosexuals any differently from heterosexuals, he is still branded homophobic, because the ‘receivers’ of his message decode it that way.

The volume of opinion regarding his comment, which was part of the comment thread in response to another user, rather than a Tweet he originated, is staggering. As a devout Christian, Folau, unapologetically shares the word of God. It is a requirement of the faith itself and some believe his right to express his religious beliefs is as important as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities rights’ to be protected from this type of statement (Sydney Morning Herald, 2018).

“Social media has given a platform to many voices that might otherwise never be heard, increasing the opportunity for freedom of speech, but at what cost”
Sarah Joseph
(NZ Herald, 2018)

Only Israel Folau can know the true intent of his message, yet many people have formed an opinion based on their interpretation of his statement. His digital footprint is forever altered, due to an ongoing feedback loop. While some form their views through decoding Folau’s comment and his further clarification, many are ‘receivers’ of ‘receivers’. Admonished for his intolerance, there is little tolerance for his religion. When he responded to the other user, Folau entered Burcher’s feedback loop – stuck until the next news cycle.

The Shannon-Weaver model still has relevance in modern communications with Burcher’s inclusion of social media in the model. New ‘channels’ such as social media platforms and search engines for the world wide web, have emerged complicating communication. Content restrictions in digital ‘channels’ can reduce the size of a communication, meaning critical information is left out. Alongside physical or technical issues, that create ‘noise’ through loss of information, semantic errors also occur through an oversupply of information. The increased volume of information may distract from, or influence how, the ‘receiver’ decodes a message. The effect can be significant, with content entering a cyclic feedback loop that continues to perpetuate new ‘receivers’ until another communication that generates more interest starts the model over again.

As for Folau, the initial decoding of his message as homophobic is unlikely to change and will probably continue to be perpetuated as feedback continues.  Despite further explanation in an attempt to restart the cycle, Folau will simply have to wait until the feedback loop ends or another cycle starts. There is simply too much ‘noise’ for his message to be heard.

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Author: Our Social Fabric

Our Social Fabric is exploring the effect of social media on modern culture. So prevalent in today's society and available on multiple devices, all of the time, social media is changing the way we connect with each other. While our ability to connect is greater than ever, do we really feel more connected.