TL;DR: Never has the topic of social media’s impact on politics had such a sharp focus — and it’s only going to continue to increase. The role social media had in the 2016 election is under close scrutiny, and while it may not immediately impact many brands, the longer-term effects are something all brands need to be aware of as they shape social strategies moving forward.
An entire year later, the ripples of the 2016 presidential election continue to be felt, specifically as executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter made their first statements to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week, acknowledging their roles in Russia’s influence on the presidential campaign. Facebook alone admitted that Russian influence reached 126 million U.S. voters ahead of the election.
Regardless of which side of the political aisle you inhabit, there is no denying 2016 was a landmark election for a variety of reasons. Because of the sharp divide and partisanship we’re seeing, we have no desire to argue one side over the other. Rather, we want to examine the current social media landscape and determine its impact on brands. We feel there are three main ways social media has changed politics and are monitoring them from a brand standpoint:
1. Social Media Users Find Their Crowds
Call it the “bubble,” call it extreme partisanship, call it whatever you like, but there have been very few times in American history where we, as a country, have been as divided as we currently are. History experts may disagree, but any other similar eras lack one major aspect: social media.
Even 10 or 15 years ago, someone with a non-mainstream political passion or belief was likely without a soapbox to stand on, let alone a large support base. Social media changed all of that. Whether they are alt-right, alt-left, antifa or whatever the term du jour is, they now have a means of promoting their platform and growing their base. And with the algorithms Facebook, Twitter and others employ, it’s more and more likely these groups will only see similar points of view, which only reinforces their beliefs instead of exposing people to dissenting views to foster a more holistic view of the political environment.
Impact on brands: With so many digital ad networks available, it’s becoming more likely brands may inadvertently end up with their brand messaging on fringe platforms or channels. Combined with an ever-increasing consumer focus on brands that are advertising on fringe websites and platforms, brands must be hyper-vigilant to make sure they don’t subject themselves to needless boycotts. Therefore, brands must push for complete transparency with their agencies and networks to ensure their messaging continues to be placed in the most appropriate places.
2. Integrity of Pillar News Outlets Questioned
With the “bubble” news sources people have available to them, there is a growing apathy (at best) and even mistrust (at worst) toward our long-time “trusted” news outlets. As fringe and alt sources of news grow, stalwarts like the New York Times, CNN and Washington Post are challenged again and again by groups that might not agree with their reporting. On social media and in the comments sections, some go as far as to question the integrity and claim biases.
But the news for these news pillars isn’t all bad. In fact, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post among others all increased new digital subscriptions since the election, so they clearly are strengthening their base.
Impact on brands: As the American public continues to further stratify, a brand’s ability to communicate to a broader audience will continue to get harder and harder. The “bubbles” discussed in the previous section and further polarization means brands must take a nuanced approach to messaging in social media to account for the wide variety of personas we currently face.
3. Social media targeting under a microscope
Social media advertising has proved more effective than any advertising before because of targeting: Reach the right people in the right place at the right time. However, as more information emerges about Russia’s influence, new light is shone on the fact that the automated ad systems of Facebook, Twitter, Google and others make it easy for anyone to place an ad and serve it to whomever they want. Well, almost: Facebook recently made a statement that it’s hiring some 4,000 people to weed out fake accounts or those spreading false information.
Impact on brands: Admittedly, this one is seriously difficult to predict: As more information emerges on the roles social media companies played in the 2016 election, Congress is taking steps to regulate them and any other platforms where high levels of personal data are used to target for specific messaging. While it’s a solution to show transparency in a largely unregulated area, one of the biggest advantages of social media may be handicapped, depriving brands of the opportunity to hyper-target with contextual content.
While the outlook may come across as a bit bleak, we at Sparkloft feel strongly about the power of social media and its ability to help brands solve their business objectives. As with any new technology, we have come to expect evolution as the landscape shifts, and we are definitely tracking what we see as some very significant shifts upcoming.