Social Media: The Power Tool of Crowd Manipulation

It should come as no surprise that social media has swept societal interactions today. In 2014, Facebook had over 1.2 billion active monthly users and 75% of post engagement happened within the first 5 hours; Twitter reported over 255 million active monthly users, of which 46% tweet at least once a day; and, Instagram had 187 million active monthly users that, to date, have shared more than 20 billion photos. (Click to view full infographic)

Social media has powerfully opened the lines of communication between individuals of different countries or varying socio-economic classes, between “untouchables” (celebrities, public figures) and fans, and between consumers and businesses. But, it has also intensely provided a means to distribute information, link and mobilize individuals toward a specific action.

Last August saw the inception of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which gained momentum through social media. Neal Caren and Sarah Gaby from UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences tracked the spreading of this movement via social networking and found that “Facebook and Twitter have been central organizing locations for spreading information about Occupy Wall Street”. In fact, more than 400 Facebook Occupy Wall Street pages were created including at least one in each of the 50 states. Also over the summer, the #icebucketchallenge swept the nation and helped the ALS Association witness a 3,500% increase in fundraising dollars year over year.

Social media has effectively created a worldwide “mob mentality” – how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors, follow trends, and/or purchase items. Historically, mob mentality / herd mentality occurred when individuals were physically in a large group and, thus, more inclined to lose their sense of individual identity or follow normal restraints to do what others around them are doing. Today, we don’t need to be in the same physical location to associate with the social media mob. Wherever you log on, however your log on, if you are a social media user, you are a part of that group. And, this mob mentality is quickly becoming a powerful marketing tool for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Businesses have utilized crowd manipulation tactics to promote their products and services for a long time. Wikipedia defines crowd manipulation as the “intentional use of techniques based on the principles of crowd psychology to engage, control, or influence the desires of a crowd in order to direct its behavior toward a specific action.” Understanding that social media users can react as a mob, businesses now have several (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.) outlets to quickly and cost-effectively manipulate the masses.

A perfect example of social media mob mentality was the instant stardom of “Alex from Target”, a 16-year old Target employee from Texas who became an internet sensation when a photo of him went viral (#alexfromtarget). As Andrew Lih, a journalism professor at the American University School of Communication was quoted as saying, “There is a whole attempt at making sense of this now, but I can’t find any. The Internet is more and more like your local high school where inexplicably the crowd picks something that is not that interesting and elevates it to popularity status.” Although Target claimed to have no awareness of this stunt, the company did receive plenty of free, positive advertising for their brand.

Similarly, Paper Magazine set out to “Break the Internet” with nude photos of Kim Kardashian. Unlike the Target example, this campaign was purposefully done to promote the publication. And, according to tracking site managed “to attract “nearly 1 percent of the entire Internet browsing population of the U.S.” on November 13, the day after the article…got posted.” In fact, month over month, Paper Magazine’s website saw a 2,739% growth! I can admit, I worked in publishing in NYC and I had never heard of Paper Magazine; but, I visited their site just to see what all the hype was about.

Most recently, Sony Pictures has witnessed big success for the release of The Interview. After a controversial hacking scandal, possibly at the hands of North Korea, Sony pulled the movie and all other forms of traditional advertising/promotion (including speaking engagements by its lead actors). Then the masses – entertainers, politicians, movie-goers, etc. – took to social media to express their disagreement with this move. Enough momentum was apparently stirred because Sony went back to a Christmas release via social media (YouTube) and saw $1M at the box office over the holiday.

Social media crowd manipulation can, obviously, be a very powerful form of marketing today. Unfortunately, it’s hard for organizations to gauge what will go viral, so it’s difficult to plan this type of marketing strategy. Even more dangerous is that there is very little control over what message users will share. McDonald’s learned this first-hand when they created the #McDStories hashtag to go along with its #MeetTheFarmers hashtag. Instead of sharing stories that would promote the quality of McDonald’s suppliers, Twitter users started sharing horror stories of their experiences at McDonalds (i.e. @Alice_2112 tweeted, “Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonald’s in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories”).

What’s most important is for businesses to stay on top of social media trends (i.e. popular hashtags on Twitter), and start building a strong social media relationship with their core audiences. That way crowd manipulation is less a manipulation tactic and more of an organic, power tool in marketing.



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