Brexit: Facebook as a Yes-Man

Brexit and social media

The world is still trying to reconcile itself with the idea that the UK has in fact voted to leave the EU. In the wake of one of the most significant referendums in recent history, many have started wondering how this has happened. Many are blaming the EU bureaucracy, others believe the ‘Leave’ campaigns were misleading, some people who voted to leave are now saying that they didn’t expect their vote to matter, and many of those who voted didn’t believe the experts who were telling them what would happen. I will leave it to political commentators to look into this, what did stand out for me is the role that social media played in the results of this vote, and certainly not just as a means of communication.

Surely Social Media offered a venue for the different positions to send out messages in a way that has never been possible before: tweets, short videos, and images bombarded us for the past three months. And we, the people, had the chance to reply, comment, and share, like we never have been able to before. We were a very active and significant part of the campaign, for each side. However, on a more disturbing level, we were also played by social media and its mechanisms. Let’s be clear here, it’s not because Zuckerberg, Gates, or any of the other big guys in the digital space has a direct interest in driving our vote. It’s because Social Media simply wants to give us what we want.

Allow me to explain.

To understand this, we need to look at how Social Media operates. Take Facebook for instance: the posts that you see on your feed do not necessarily appear in chronological order. The algorithm used is quite complex but simplifying a lot, Facebook looks at the interactions that you had with the post’s source in the past and pushes news or drops posts based on your past behavior. Simply put, the more you interact with the posts from your friend “Tom” the more you will be exposed to Tom’s posts. Have you noticed that if you regularly like posts from one of your friends and then one day you chose to ignore one of their popular posts, that post tends to come back on top of your feeds for a few days? This is because Facebook knows that you usually interact with the person that posted it, and wants to make sure that you don’t miss it. Facebook is trying to help you be exposed to things you wouldn’t want to miss.

For brands, this has meant investing into Native Advertising because their posts were not getting enough exposure. Only people that had initial interactions with their brand posts would keep being exposed to subsequent posts and hence the brands’ reach was limited. By paying, the brands would get back on to people’s feeds as ‘Sponsored updates’. However, Facebook still makes sure that its users are not bombarded by not-relevant, annoying messages so it still gives preference to posts that you connect with or are more likely to connect with based on your social behavior.

So, back to Brexit: when campaigning first started I received a few sponsored updates from both parties. I already had a clear idea of what I hoped the result would be so I disregarded the ‘Leave’ posts, while sharing and commenting on the ‘Remain’ posts. I wanted my friends to see and share good reasons to stay in the EU, and the more I shared the more I received ‘Remain’ sponsored updates. Clearly I was interested in the ‘Remain’ campaign so Facebook was being nice, why bother me with ‘Leave’ messages when I am clearly behaving as a ‘Remain’ user?!

This is where the devil is in the detail. Say, for instance, that I was someone leaning towards leaving but that I wasn’t 100% sure yet about what to vote. Say that I shared a few ‘Leave’ posts to understand more from my friends or exchange ideas? In this case, what would have happened to my feed is that  the number of posts on ‘Leave’ would have slowly increased while the ‘Remain’ posts would have decreased. I would have been exposed to way more ‘Leave’ messages than ‘Remain’ messages. Do you see where I’m heading? Instead of opening our mind to different opinions, Social Media is like that friend that always wants to please you and will never tell you that the dress you are wearing honestly looks terrible on you. Social Media reinforces your beliefs, or what it thinks are your beliefs, and prevents you from being exposed to different opinions unless you make a proper effort to gather these opinions yourself. Contrary to what people might think, it doesn’t just give us exposure to more information, it makes us feel right and feel good about our own already existing beliefs.

It’s a bit like with ‘Vaccines war’: do you or do you not vaccinate your children? The more you interact with posts about anti-vaccines the more posts about it you receive, preventing you from hearing the other side of the story and confirming that your decision to not vaccinate your children is the right one.

If you want to understand more details about how social media works you can read: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ajagrawal/2016/04/20/what-do-social-media-algorithms-mean-for-you/#73acf3be895f

and

http://time.com/3950525/facebook-news-feed-algorithm/

Another interesting piece is about the alleged favoritism of Facebook towards “Leave”: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/06/15/facebook-removes-pro-brexit-status-update-after-being-accused-of/

So, am I calling Social Media the devil? Absolutely not. Social Media is a great source of information and an incredible venue for debate. It certainly represents a step towards the democratization of information, but we also need to remember that no information is impartial, that not everything that appears on our feed is true or correct, and that as any time before the digital era, to make a decision, particularly an important one like this one, you need to check your facts.

As for your own brands keep on producing outstanding content that is worth interacting with, keep investing in Native Advertising to get a prime spot on users’ feeds, and keep engaging your audience in the digital space. It does pay back in terms of brand exposure, support to sale and client service. But do also remember that the digital space calls for transparency, and while opinions can be influenced, ultimately your customers will hold you accountable for the claims you make.

Adieu UK, and best of luck with your new adventure!

About the author: Giulia Iannucci is a strategic branding and marketing consultant, and founder of KnowThyBrand.

From brand identity to logo design, from website creation to digital marketing strategy, KnowThyBrand offers a range of solutions for businesses that are starting their journey and those that are looking to find a new way.

www.knowthybrand.com

 

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