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After Pizzagate what does 2017 have in store?

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Last year offered some dramatic lessons in the power of social media. From Brexit to Trump social media messages, whether accurate or not, had a huge impact particularly if they played strongly on emotions.

It culminated in the so called ‘Pizzagate’ incident, when completely unfounded rumours spread through social media of a paedophile ring at a pizza restaurant ended with a gun being fired.

The impact of social media and the emotional content of its messages is set to grow even more in 2017 and Dr Aleksej Heinze, social media expert at the University of Salford looks at this phenomenon in a new blog. Dr Heinze says that the general public may need to become more critical of social media messages as the potential for manipulation grows.

He writes: “The headline numbers of President-Elect Donald Trump, with his current 17m followers and over 34k tweets as opposed to his rival Hilary Clinton with 11m followers and just under 10k tweets, indicate the prominence that the two candidates  placed  on  this one channel of communication.

“In terms of engagement in the run up to Election day - 8th November - Hillary Clinton’s twitter account was getting 3-5k retweets, whilst Donald Trump’s was getting well over tens of thousands of retweets and this made a difference.

“The number of re-tweets signifies engagement rates and contributes in online communities terminology to Social Capital. This year we have witnessed proof that having campaign financial capital is not as effective as having social capital. Hillary Clinton’s campaign raised $1.4 billion, far greater than Donald Trump’s $932 million. Having strong social capital on social media creates a powerful echo chamber. Countries with high internet penetration offer a fertile ground for such communications.

“In the UK’s EU Referendum, the financial power and content creation of the UK Government’s machine was put up against a coalition of Love Leave campaigners. However, the messages coming from the official Government channels were “dry” and not emotionally charged. The fear  of  the  unknown and potential economic drawbacks which were repeated and escalated again and again did provoke emotion, but it was that of fear.

“However, the Vote Leave messages of being able to invest more money into the NHS, taking back control of the borders and being in charge of our own laws had very strong emotional appeal. The emotions of anger tend to get better traction in viral marketing and the vote leave campaigns were able to capitalise on years of complaints about the European Union and turn these messages into messages of hope in an exit scenario.

“The pizzagate incident involved fake news leading an individual to a pizzeria in Washington D.C. where he is alleged to have fired an assault rifle in the belief that he was trying to confront a child sex-traffiking ring based on his own investigations of a pizzagate conspiracy.

“Pizzagate is an example from a digitally savvy US, but we are all exposed to such messages on a daily basis. For example, during war story reporting where it is too dangerous to send official reporters, social media accounts from the fighters can be used for propaganda and misinformation. These  kind  of  unverified messages from both sides of the conflict provoke powerful emotions and quickly gain virality: The popularity of the message takes over and we no longer question how these messages have come into being.

“‘Post-truth’ has become word of the year for 2016, 2016 has made social media communication much more prominent.

“Perhaps people should be more aware of what they read on social media and develop a more critical and cynical approach to the news.

“If consumers of social media accept what they read as being the truth 2017 may become the year that encourages those motivated to manipulate our opinions and behaviour.”

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Sam Wood

0161 295 5361