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Net delusions – the dark side of social media

I’m struck by Malcom Gladwell’s latest broadside against feverish descriptions of how social media has created sudden change.

His much longer, more nuanced piece from late last year “Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted” is something to read if you are interested in social media and communications. I’m guessing that’s a few of you.

Gladwell writes “There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”.

Here’s more from Gladwell:

“Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

“The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.`”

This last quote is particularly important. Given the status quo is often what many people with money, quite like.

Gladwell references Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World”. His research is fascinating on the topic of the dark sides of social media.

There’s a couple of speeches by him you can listen to or watch here if you click on the links at the bottom of the page.

The video linked above is deeply scary. Morozov shows how corporate and government domination of social media, a medium he says we all think can’t be ‘gamed’ – is really quite easy – and he shows how it’s being done.

Morozov points out just how much fake leak sites and social media are being used to spread dis-information.

We all laughed when BPlobalPR did it last year on twitter.

It’s not so funny when newspapers all over the world start printing false leaks as real, as happened recently in Pakistan.

For companies, the risks are just as real.

They are twofold: A risk of knowingly, or unknowingly, via agents, spreading disinformation, and getting caught.

Secondly, being the victim of a campaign group or criminal outfit.

Gladwell’s argument that the mechanism is not as important as the message is right.

But for companies the potential damage that false information can do could be extremely damaging.

Here’s some examples of what could happen:

– Instant boycotts, protests and even violence, based on fake documents (milk scandals in China would be ripe for that, for example) China is not big on Facebook, but instant messaging could do the job just as easily.

– Protestors can gather outside your offices or stores faster than you can find out about them. (UK Uncut for example)

– Criminal speculators could short your stock just before some fake bad news hits the social media universe.

– Bloggers and journalists could hit you where it hurts without undertaking due diligence. If the source can look credible, they may not do check them. Most won’t.

I’m not trying to scaremonger here.

But we should be aware of the power of online manipulation by all actors: Governments, NGOs, companies and their agents.

So far 99% of what’s caused a scandal has been true, and no-one has much sympathy for the governments and companies involved.

The chances it could happen to you, or a client, are probably low. For now. But now does not last very long.

My bet is that social media and disinformation is more likely to cause damage in developing and emerging markets, where credible verification is tougher, politicians more populist, and damaging and dangerous reaction quicker to arise.

In some countries governments will be using technology more and more to suppress protest movements. If you firm is seen as complicit in this, that’s a big risk.

And protestors or opponents will use it to spread mis-information. Look at what is happening in the case of Chevron and Ecuador in the US. It’s all got very dirty.

There’s some good news here too: The way to stay safe is increasingly not to do anything dodgy in the first place, rather than bank on not getting caught.

Just over a year ago, we published a four part series looking at the opportunities.

They are there, but for companies the risks are much greater at this stage.

That’s not an excuse to ignore the phenomenon.

Quite the opposite: You need a platform to defend yourself from, and some online goodwill to do so.

An authentic and honest online presence, complete with some real and critical stakeholders within it, would be a good start.

3 Comments

  1. Jon

    Really interesting post, thank you … partially an update on the principle that "a lie is half way round the world before the truth has it's pants on.."

    interesting to see how Gladwell is now being bullied by the twitterati, treated as something of a heretic (although I guess you can't have a heretic without first having a dogma!)

    Very interested in your conclusion:
    "You need a platform to defend yourself from, and some online goodwill to do so. An authentic and honest online presence, complete with some real and critical stakeholders within it, would be a good start".

    Did you have any views about what such a platform should look like?

  2. Hi Jon. I think Patagonia's blog and footprint chronicles are a good place to see how you, in theory, put some of what I suggest into practice.

    Thanks for the comments,
    Toby

  3. Rob Weston

    Good post – your closing comments about 'digital resilience' (if I may paraphrase) put me in mind of Anita Roddick's success in the analogue world when Channel 4 did their 'expose' of animal testing in Body Shop's supply chain. Because Anita/BSI had built a lot of credit in the 'emotional bank account' (ie trust) even people who believed the worst seem to have taken this to be a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission. If anything, the documentary boosted Body Shop's brand equity.

    Much the same seems possible online, as you suggest may be the case with Patagonia.

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