Remember when we thought the internet would democratize information, enable free expression, and foster a more transparent society?
Today, that rosy vision feels further away than ever. We live in an age of online disinformation and viral fake news, sock puppet accounts, election influence operations, deep fakes, and a reactive "cancel culture" driven by viral hot takes.
This internet landscape is not only unsettling for users but can feel dangerous and volatile for brands with an online presence (read: almost all of them).
The good news? There's a way back to that original vision. There are predictable systems at play on social media that are responsible for disinformation and have disproportionate influence — and they're identifiable.
If communications pros start to view a brand's digital presence through this lens, they can navigate the chaos of the internet while keeping brand integrity and values intact. Better yet, they can focus on connecting authentically at a human scale with real people on the internet, rather than fighting trolls, bots, and inauthenticity.
Factions Control Social Media, for Better and Worse
The internet's best-kept secret is there's a method behind what goes viral. Small groups of hyper-active users gather around their shared interests, forming subcultures called factions. These factions organize on major social platforms and discussion boards like Reddit, as well as non-mainstream channels such as 4chan, Gab, and others.
Factions, not individual users, are the actual influencers of the internet. While individual users can wield a disproportionate impact on a faction, it's the mobilized networks of users around them that exert disproportionate control over online conversation.
Factions activate other factions to click the share button and spread the word. And they often consciously, like marketers use just the right language and content — a news article, photo, video, or even a meme — to make certain narratives spread like wildfire.
There are many hundreds of factions online, and they come in all shapes and forms, from pop star fandoms to grass-roots activists to terrorist organizations.
And while Beyonce's 'Beyhive' has very different concerns than a faction like ISIS, these online groups all leverage the influence mechanics of social platforms to amplify their beliefs.
Common tactics of factions include bots and automation, which can quickly increase the visibility of a subject; boycotts to express disapproval; petitions to manufacture the appearance of widespread support; review bombing, where groups coordinate negative reviews to reduce sales or popularity; the creation of identification symbols, symbol or phrases used to identify faction allies and draw broader support; creating memes, cartoons, or manifestos to support a narrative; and micro-targeted ads that solicit key demographic groups with content designed to engage.
How Factions Impact Big Brands
While working with high-profile brands, understanding the behavioral characteristics of factions can be the difference between success and crisis. When a conversation that involves a brand goes viral or reaches a mainstream audience, it has the power to boost brand awareness, positive sentiment, and product demand. But if the story is negative — regardless of its truth — brand reputation, valuation, and even revenue can take a serious hit.
For example, when Black Panther and The Last Jedi hit theaters, a faction that organized through Facebook sabotaged the movies by 'review bombing' the movies Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes recognized the impact of the tactic and is changing the way it tabulates ratings. But these situations highlight how a passionate fringe group can impact the mainstream perception of a brand.
But Brands Don't Have to Be Scared of the Internet
To get proactive about the opportunities and risks of faction behavior, brand managers and analysts must arm themselves with the right tools. Most brands already monitor online conversations about their brand and related topics — typically with engagement metrics such as mentions, trending hashtags, and sentiment analysis.
At the account level, these tools are useful but incomplete. To assess the authenticity and the true scale of online conversations, brands should look through the lens of the social subcultures and the ways that different groups exert variable influence.
The fact is not every social account or post is created equal, and treating them so ignores the context of who they are and how they behave, which is essential to determining whether or how a brand should act. As comms pros begin to view online conversations in their accurate social context, they can right-size their brand's response, prioritizing their real audience and focusing on meaningful conversations — not just the 'popular' ones.
The Way Forward
Every major brand is trying to interact authentically with audiences online. But it's essential, in such an unpredictable environment, to know the underlying mechanics of social networks.
We have to recalibrate our understanding of the internet and how information spreads across it and put factions at the center. This perspective creates a much clearer path forward for brands online; one they can use to fight disinformation, find the people who share their values and live without fear of internet trolls.
Robert Matney is managing director of Yonder, an A.I. software company that finds the hidden groups who control and amplify online narratives in order to help companies navigate the internet.