Advocacy in The Age of The Social Media Echo Chamber

The “echo chamber,” a metaphor describing the phenomenon where a person’s own ideological beliefs are reinforced and reverberated among the like-minded people and news sources they surround themselves with, continues to impact our political landscape. Understanding it and our role in it is critical to protecting our nation’s governance and our journalistic integrity. 

The Origin of The Echo Chamber

The first instance where this term was used was to explain public sentiment and policy around the decision to pursue the war in Iraq. The term made a large resurgence during the 2016 presidential election, where the popularity of social media radically polarized voters. Hillary Clinton supporters for example were shocked by her loss due to the inaccurate gauge of public opinion represented in their social media feeds. 

Social Media’s Role in Polarization

Social media has advanced and compounded the existence of echo chambers. Each platform has an algorithm that highlights posts on a user’s feed that, based on their activity, aligns with their preferences. Therefore, many users interact with a curated bubble that reinforces what they already like and believe. This means we’re all losing sense of broader social sentiment. For those working in the social advocacy space, this can present a problem in changing the hearts and minds of people with differing viewpoints. 

Social Media’s Role in Social Change

However, according to Pew research from 2016, “20% of social media users say they’ve modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media, and 17% say social media has helped to change their views about a specific political candidate.” The respondents indicated that their opinions were changed on major social justice issues including the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control, as well as their stance on who they voted for in the election. This data presents hope for organizations and individuals engaged in advocacy and social justice. 

What Does This Mean for Your Organization? 

For those looking to shift sentiment on an issue beyond their like minded followers, it is certainly worthwhile to take extra efforts to expand their following to new groups. Additionally, organizations should encourage healthy, open dialogue among their follower base to ensure the sharing of opinions and attract a diverse audience. In order to gauge a more accurate pulse on social sentiment, advocacy organizations should monitor a spectrum of news sources and advocate accordingly.

Through a strategic and thoughtful PR and social media strategy, organizations like TASC can help you make social change possible online. For more information about The TASC Group’s past work, take a look at our case studies to learn more about the impact of our advocacy work on behalf of our clients. Some specific examples include the team’s engagement with the Bronx Rising Initiative, the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary and the consortium of asbestos attorneys litigating against Johnson & Johnson.

The Anatomy of a Social Media “Riot”

By the time police arrived, Union Square was severely overcrowded. Within the park’s nine acres, thousands of young onlookers had gathered for what was supposed to be a gift giveaway hosted by Twitch-personality Kai Cenat. Drawn by the promise of free Play Stations and the chance to meet a social media celebrity, thousands of teenagers had traveled to the park. 

When the crowd, predominantly an audience of youthful teenage boys, clashed with police, things escalated quickly. In dozens of videos shared across YouTube and other social media platforms, police collar the young attendees. One video captures a police officer slamming a teenage boy through a taxi cab’s back window. By the end of the day, several people were seriously injured, 60+ people were arrested and Union Square Park sustained over $55,000 in property damage. Cenat, the influencer who had sparked the gathering with posts made on Twitch days before, was charged by police with “unlawful gathering” and “inciting a riot.”

As police investigate this incident further and Cenat faces a court date, it’s worth considering the broader context of social media relationships and the unpredictable power of influencers to catalyze mass action in physical reality. In an age defined by Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and dozens of other social networks, what role do social media personalities have in driving people to action? What can happen when an influencer with a cult following asks their followers to do something? To answer the latter, we must first understand the phenomena known as parasocial relationships. 

Defined as “a one-sided relationship where one person creates an emotional attachment and invests their time and energy, while the other party doesn’t know of the other person’s existence,” parasocial relationships are a hallmark of social media users, especially younger users post-pandemic.

In a recent study by Wellesley College’s Youth Media and Well-Being Research Lab, researchers found that 90 percent of kids have social media by the time they turn 12 (7th grade for context). With the advent of coronavirus, lockdown and the implementation of remote learning in 2020, millions of teenagers leaned harder on social media to maintain physically distanced relationships and monitor ever-evolving news. In the process, many gravitated to familiar faces, screentime soared and the popularity of specialized, social media personalities rose with it. 

These relationships are built on constant content, frequent user interaction and intensely personal exchanges occurring several times a day. Intimacy is key. 

Most influencers cultivate a following over time, then use these followers to secure lucrative brand deals and partnerships. While encouraging your fans to buy a product or use a service is commonplace, the power of influencers to mobilize fans in real life beyond just buying a product, to encourage them to go somewhere and do something, is still unpredictable and relatively immeasurable.

In the case of Cenat, he unwittingly baited followers to do something dangerous. What was meant to be a good time, short giveaway and brief interaction, became something much more serious. Another interesting element here, the gathering was sparked by a relatively small medium.

If you’re unfamiliar with Twitch, it’s a social media platform best known for live-streaming events, including video game tournaments and product reviews. The platform hosts approximately 140M active monthly users. For context, that’s 1/3 of X’s (formerly Twitter) monthly audience, less than 1/4 of Tiktok’s and barely 1/20 of Meta’s. Cenat, the influencer at the heart of this scandal, is one of Twitch’s most followed creators. To date, he has over 6.5M subscribers and he posts content daily. 

This “riot” resulted from a perfect storm of circumstances. Post-pandemic teens, a diligently followed social media personality, the rise of parasocial relationships, the promise of a free, coveted product, a general lack of awareness about and unpredictability of calls to action on social media – these all melded together to create a moment New York City was unprepared for, yet one we can learn from. As communicators who often partner with influencers like Cenat or work with clients including city departments or public policymakers, we must be prepared. 

It is important that we understand how to predict, understand and measure the power these online figures have to mobilize their followers. Frankly, we must acknowledge this power exists in the first place. Most importantly, we must work towards ensuring and encouraging online personalities to use their influence for good. 

The Surge of ‘Woke-Washing’ in the Advertising Landscape 

Last month New Yorkers found themselves immersed in a thought-provoking ad campaign that’s been taking over subway stations throughout Manhattan. Dove, renowned for its commitment to challenging conventional beauty standards, is at the forefront of this advertising endeavor with its “The Pits of New York” and #FreeThePits campaign, strategically launched just in time for the fashion week.  

The campaign’s underlying message intended to resonate with women, shedding light on the impact of underarm insecurities, particularly in relation to clothing choices and social activities. Dove’s 2022 Underarm Confidence Survey further reveals a reality that a significant number of women feel subjected to judgment based on their underarms. Society’s fixation on promoting an ‘ideal’ underarm—one that’s hairless, smooth, odorless and evenly toned—adds to this issue. 

However, despite campaigns like Dove’s seemingly heralding a positive shift in today’s advertising landscape, they have not been exempt from controversy. A notable instance was their 2017 Facebook ad for body wash, which depicted a Black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman. This ad drew immediate criticism from thousands of viewers who perceived it as having racist undertones. While Dove promptly responded and issued an apology on social media, the incident raised concerns about their approval procedures and whether a diverse group of individuals had the opportunity to review the ad before it went live. 

PR practitioners, well-acquainted with the challenges of managing public perception, have found themselves at the forefront of these debates when things go awry. A recent case in point is Bud Light, which faced a barrage of criticism due to its association with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. In an attempt to salvage its image, the brand resorted to using a meme on social media, ironically mocking its own handling of the controversy. This approach backfired, drawing criticism from both PR experts and consumers alike. It further solidified the perception that the brand was mishandling the situation and jeopardizing its relationships with its customer base and the LGBTQ+ community. Bud Light’s experience is far from unique in the realm of poorly executed campaigns. The infamous 2017 Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner is another example of a brand missing the mark on social activism.  

Dove’s recent campaigns, although well-intentioned, underscore the importance of scrutiny and diverse perspectives. In today’s age of “woke-washing,” brands face the challenge of finding the right balance between impactful messaging and avoiding harm. PR practitioners play a pivotal role in guiding these brands toward authentic connections with their audiences. In this era of heightened social awareness, the lessons drawn from both successful and misguided campaigns serve as valuable guidance for advertisers aiming to create a positive impact. 

How #Sponcon Fits into the Relatable-Era of Social Media

Since its inception, social media has been evolving from a network of family and friends sharing their day-to-day lives to a platform where even companies are personalities and get seemingly organic promotion for their products through influencers. Influencers, in fact, have amassed so many followers through their relatability, that their opinions of a product can significantly boost sales. While their opinions and reviews may sometimes be genuine, their Internet celebrity stardom has led companies to pay these influencers to advertise their products – a phenomenon called “sponcon.”  

What Is Sponcon? 

Sponcon is defined as sponsored content or media exchanged for a free product or monetary value. According to the Influencer Orchestration Network, 32% of consumers believe influencer marketing feels more relatable than company advertisements. The connection between influencers and their audiences is what makes sponcon great for companies, but does influencers’ rise in fame affect how relatable they are? Lately, audiences have been engaging more with influencers who talk about their struggles and daily lives rather than influencers who eat at expensive restaurants and showcase luxury products.

The Titus sisters are a prime example of this trend. Kirsten Titus went viral this past year for talking about entertaining life stories while cutting up fruit in Hawaii. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Erika Titus, went viral for her love of K-pop bands and for trying different makeup styles. Their TikTok videos had many comments applauding the sisters for being relatable and even saying that the videos made them feel like they were on FaceTime with friends. This relatability is exactly what allows audiences to feel like they can trust these influencers’ opinions on brands. 

What Do Influencers Get for Being So Successful?  

As influencers get more and more followers, however, they start to make more money than the average person and get to go to luxury experiences – essentially becoming overnight celebrities. Due to this, there has been a wave of relatable influencers being able to participate on all-expense paid brand trips or receive free packages of products to subtly advertise to their viewers. 

Last year, with a combined following of over 11 million, the Titus sisters were able to go on an all-expense paid trip to Mexico for an Amazon event with other influencers.  This culmination of their success, however, was met with some criticism from their audience who felt the sisters were undeserving of the trip because it was “another example of rich people getting things for free” and some even pointed out the contrast between their free luxury trip and the many underpaid workers at Amazon. Despite the criticism from their audiences, the negative comments were vastly outnumbered by positive comments from people who loved the content the sisters created on their trip. While the sisters may have tarnished their relationships with some of their audience, they still continue to grow in popularity as seen by their increasing follower count. 

How Can Sponcon and Influencers Benefit Companies? 

While sponcon can create some mistrust between influencers and their audiences, influencers who have built a strong relationship with their audiences before accepting sponcon offers from companies can ultimately benefit in a social and financial way. Companies should thoroughly research the influencers they decide to partner with in order to produce sponcon that will benefit both the company and the influencer. If it is a thoughtful collaboration the audience will recognize the authenticity and will continue to support the company and brand. 

Companies will need to look at the general opinions of the content influencers produce and evaluate their follower count in order to gain an understanding of how well their audience might receive sponcon. With a balanced combination of generally positive publicity and high follower numbers, sponcon can be a beneficial opportunity for the social media influencers, their audiences and the company.

At The TASC Group, we know the impact of good storytelling. We’ve seen the way that strong messaging and personal stories can propel nonprofit organizations and social changemakers to an international audience. To learn more about some of our team’s past projects, take a look at some of our major case studies.

The Importance of Content Creation for Clients

The worlds of public relations and communications are multi-faceted. One of the most important parts of the industry is getting to know the inner workings of your clients so that you can create content that successfully bolsters their reputations and garners positive media attention.

Traditionally, ways of creating, sharing and viewing client content were limited to drafting op-eds, pitch materials and creating fact sheets, among other information providing collateral. As of late, PR and communications professionals have been looking to social media platforms to strengthen their strategies. LinkedIn, Meta (Facebook), Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest are among the most relevant social media networks from a PR perspective.

The benefits of traditional content creation still hold true. Op-eds and blogs are great ways for the public to gain insight through the media into a client’s opinions, thought processes, etc. on different subject matters and can lead to thought-leadership opportunities and partnerships with other like-minded individuals or organizations. The same goes for pitch materials, particularly with quotes or citations, and fact sheets with client information.

Social media has become an integral part of PR and communications plans for many organizations. The content created and social platforms used are dependent on the type of client. Nonprofit, social advocacy, legal and financial clients are more likely to use LinkedIn, Meta and Instagram, while fashion, beauty and consumer/lifestyle brands are likely to add TikTok and Pinterest into the mix.

For example, BlackRock, an American multinational investment company effectively uses LinkedIn to stand out as a thought-leader and advertise their services. Their content consists of infographic clips as well as testimonials. BlackRock knows their audience well, which allows them to curate specific content and decide which social media platforms to utilize. The company understands their audience exists on LinkedIn and is interested in reading niche blogs and learning financial jargon.

ASOS is a British online fashion and cosmetic company with over one million followers and 14 million likes on TikTok. They know a lot of their demographic resides on TikTok. ASOS follows all the trends and is very aware of what their audience wants to see. Their videos are lightly edited which make them more relatable and re-creatable to the audience. They advertise their products through  videos of unboxings and styling people in creative environments.

The consumer’s attention span is decreasing due to the rise of social media. People do not want to read long posts or videos, but instead get their information quickly. Knowing the client’s target audience and understanding the idea of palatable content will lead to successful media campaigns. LinkedIn posts for one audience may not work for another, strategies are subjective. It is crucial to understand where a client’s demographic resides in order to produce the best content.

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