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Tread carefully in the coming ‘culture wars’


By Anthony Hughes

There is a growing sense in the media at the moment that ‘culture wars’ are going to define the public and political discourse in this country in the coming years. Research by the American pollster Frank Lutz for the Centre for Policy Studies published last week, suggests that Britain is on its way to becoming as divided as the United States, where, he argues, increasingly polarised culture wars determine party loyalty more than economics. Daniel Finkelstein in the Times disagrees, he believes that culture wars are in fact about economics and that “noisy arguments over free speech, masks and wokeness are really an expression of material self-interest”. Either way culture wars are increasingly becoming a reputational consideration too big to ignore.

Much of this discourse around culture wars gets played out on social media. Most people are aware by now that social media companies seek to maximise engagement with their platforms using sophisticated algorithms. These algorithms actively encourage echo chambers because they increase engagement but they also serve to polarise and segregate people on a scale rarely seen before. The result is a growing societal divide and tribalism. What is often lost on social media is any kind of nuanced discussion, context and the assumption of good faith. Online tribes sling mud over virtual walls at each other in an increasingly extreme way without actually listening to the other side or engaging with the debate in a meaningful way.

What is particularly worrying is many social media platforms can be manipulated for nefarious advantage. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that certain foreign powers and shadowy groups have built massive misinformation machines and so called ‘bot-armies’ on social platforms that can very effectively stoke cultural and social divides. They create the appearance of support and legitimacy for ideas that aren’t there in reality. For example, misinformation about vaccines and ‘mask wearing’ have served as trigger points for culture wars that are dividing nations. There is obvious strategic geo-political advantage for those perpetuating this misinformation. Politically and culturally divided nations are too consumed with their own problems to pose as a challenge. A divided UK or USA is, after all, less of a threat than a united one. Companies also need to be aware, that stoking a culture war (through misinformation) is an easy way for a rival to scupper a business or deal.

From a reputational standpoint the culture wars represent a growing risk for companies, particularly those that operate in strategic sectors or in the public eye. Should we engage on an issue or not? The findings from the Centre for Policy Studies survey contains a warning for big businesses tempted to display their socially aware credentials, with only 9 per cent of those surveyed believing that companies should speak out on social issues. Recent years have seen a number of well-known brands make deliberate and high-profile forays into the culture wars from Nike with Colin Kaepernick to Gillette’s advertisement on toxic masculinity. It’s a risky move because you are likely to alienate one group or another. What makes it particularly hard is that brands and companies are increasingly valued according to their contribution to society or ESG metrics and are expected to contribute to the discourse on some level as a result. As the culture wars intensify, companies and brands will have to tread very carefully, on the one hand remaining relevant, engaged and true to the values they stand for, but also, sensitive to the issues and correctly judging the mood. Such is the power of social media to mobilise massive groups of (angry) people, a company can see its products ‘cancelled’ or even burned overnight.

That is not to say that brands and companies should not engage and stand up for what is right - they absolutely should. We are in a time of huge social change, with many important issues rightly taking centre stage. But any engagement should not be reactionary, it should be done in a thoughtful manner. Companies need to stay true to their carefully considered mission and values (and company culture) rather than ‘hopping on the latest bandwagon’. People can smell insincerity a mile away. Companies and brands also need to think long term about the message they are putting out. The conversation moves at incredible speed, and context and nuance can often be lost, particularly on social media. The internet is littered with examples of company communications that have aged badly even in a matter of months, doing lasting damage to their brand. As the Turkish proverb goes “He bites his tongue who speaks in haste”.