The last few weeks have shown the power of social media to create a reach that traditional advertising and PR could only dream of. There have been two prominent social media trends over the past month; well three if you count the furore surrounding celebrities leaked private photos. This blog post rather than being about celebrities intimate photos will focus on the ALS Ice Bucket challenge and the use of social media by extremists. These two social media phenomena have showcased some of the best and the worst of human nature. Both illustrate how provocative content can create a spark of interest which generates a lot of attention for a cause, reaching millions in a short space of time and in a means that it its hard for Government to influence. Interestingly enough the two trends may be more similar than you realise…
Ice Bucket Challenge
The ice bucket challenge is the simple premise that an individual will empty a bucket of cold water with ice in it over their head before nominating other people to take the ‘challenge’. To its benefit it has raised awareness of a disease that sadly many had never heard of. Two variants of the challenge have formed: one where you take the challenge to avoid donating and the second where you make a donation regardless but a larger donation is made when forfieitng the challenge. I personally can’t abide by the wastage of clean water to avoid donating but that nor how the ALS charity spends its money is not the point of this blog. The success of this campaign which to date has seen in excess of 2.4 million ice bucket-related videos posted on Facebook and over $100 million raised is largely down to its accessibility and reach across generations and gender. Being open to those who had access to a water source meant that a large variety of people could take part (of course roughly one in ten of the world’s population don’t have access to clean water). This fact alone makes it instantly more accessible than the #nomakeupselfie campaign which was fairly exclusionary to most men (who don’t tend to wear make-up). The campaign leverages what some would term our ‘narcissistic sharing culture’ where being seen to conform by updating every aspect of your lives on social media as opposed to fostering genuine altruism. I wouldn’t say this is endemic (or indeed specific) to our entire generation, but peer pressure is pervasive and made more visible by social media. It seems that with the right medium you can make any idea spread no matter its intent or risk. An example of this is the sometimes dangerous Neknominate craze. However, instead of occasionally being damaging causes on social media can be downright dangerous…
ISIS or ISIL
Terrorism thrives on the ability to generate fear in a target community and the support of another target audience. Terrorists have now harnessed the viral power of social media to disseminate their messages. Sadly the issue has escalated with the execution of Steven Sotloff and the threatening of an as-of-yet unnamed British journalist. The actions of the extremist IS militants have been widely catalogued and shared on social media, specifically atrocities that they have committed in the name of establishing an Islamic state. Social media use by terrorists is nothing new and can be evidenced by the 2007 destruction of four US army helicopters as a result of geotagging tracking by extremists. I have previously blogged about how terrorists have been using social media and how they pick targets in order to maximise media impact.
The spread of terror takes advantage of people’s fears with a recent example being a hoax text message warning people of an attack on the London Underground similar to the 7/7 bombings. This too went viral prompting a response and denial from the Metropolitan police. Mimicking the ice bucket challenge the threats by ISIS specifically target individuals and both also utilise video as their method of message dissemination. Both campaigns also have awareness raising as the primary objective, however, fundraising and supporters will have also been gained in addition to this. Interestingly enough with the direct challenge element these campaigns enable individuals to address those in high office and await a response due to the high visibility of the issue. Both David Cameron and Barack Obama responded to the ISIS videos and the Ice bucket challenge when directly challenged over social media. This is completely different to the way politicians interacted with the public when war was announced in 1939.
The reach of such tactics is sadly remarkable a recent YouGov survey found that some 2% watched the whole James Foley video despite the fact that the Metropolitan Police have warned that doing so may be an offence under terrorism laws. 83% of those surveyed had heard about the video which most likely explains the 74 per cent who now reportedly think it likely there will be further attack on British citizens. Proof that the terrorists have somewhat succeeded in their desire to spread a feeling of vulnerability in a Western audience.
As we can see with the right messaging and content that is shocking or challenging social media can propel an issue to the forefront of the agenda with a cost effective reach traditional advertising and the PR world could only dream of. The interaction and immediacy of social media has stepped up the timescale of response, unlike the ice bucket challenge which gives you 24 hours, politicians often have far less time before they are criticised for a slow response. It will be interesting to watch as events continue to play out on social media and how that affects the political response. Once a message is out there it can be very difficult to counteract it. Increasingly if you want support for your cause online seems to the most effective channel. In their own way social media campaigns have the potential to be far more powerful than a petition, traditional PR or an advertising campaign.
As always comments are welcome below.