Why Governments and Corporations Fear Social Media

Wednesday May 2nd 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Social media connects everyone to everyone and makes communication many-to-many.

Back in February, I described in this space a sudden rise in the influence and power of social networks over both governments and corporations.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) were broadly favored by Congress. But when Google+, Twitter and Facebook users united against them, Congress reversed itself and killed the bills.

Then news about diagnostic snoopware installed on millions of phones tore through the social networks. The software, created by a company called Carrier IQ and used by carriers and handset makers to monitor user activities, generally freaked people out. The company’s partners rushed to announce that they would remove the software.

I also reported on the defeat of a non-profit organization by the power of social networks. An organization called Susan G. Komen for the Cure was forced to reverse its decision to revoke some funding from Planned Parenthood. And heads rolled.

Yes, the media and other factors came into play. But public pressure by social networks is brand new, and is an additional and powerful medium for mobilizing public opinion and individual action by the public (such as voting or boycotting).

In February, I wondered if such dramatic defeats at the hands of the social networks was a fluke or a trend. And now we know: It’s a trend, and a growing one.

Social Networks Slime ‘Pink Slime’

Pink slime never had a chance. Officially called "lean, finely textured beef," "pink slime" is basically slaughterhouse cow scraps blended into a pulp and sterilized with ammonia.

For decades, a cooked version of “pink slime” was used mainly in dog food, but migrated into the human food supply a few years ago when they figured out how to sterilize the raw version.

As an industrial food ingredient, it’s less toxic and less disgusting than many other fillers and additives in packaged food. But the fact that it’s called “pink slime” and looks horrible in the widely distributed photos sealed its fate on Google+, Twitter and Facebook. Hundreds of millions of vocal social network users delivered a resounding “thumbs down” to this unattractive foodstuff.

Then the advocates ran for cover.

First, the fast-food chains each announced that they’d stop using “pink slime.”

When reports began circulating in March that the government had bought seven million pounds of the stuff to be fed to kids in public school cafeterias, the social networks went ballistic. The government reversed its decision and canceled the order.

Then the big supermarket chains announced that they too would stop using it as a “filler” in ground beef.

Almost overnight, the social networks practically eliminated “pink slime” from the mainstream food supply.

Social Networks Core Apple

Back in January, The New York Times began a series of exposes on health and safety issues at the Chinese factories where many Apple products are made.

Those stories went viral on the social networks, and Apple very quickly became viewed by some as a greedy, slave-driving abuser of Chinese youth. Never mind that conditions at Apple factories have always been better than the Chinese average. The social networks were freaking out, and Apple had to act fast or be destroyed in the court of social networking public opinion.

Apple brought in the Fair Labor Association to audit conditions. When they found “widespread violations of Chinese labor laws,” Apple promised to aggressively fix them all by the end of the year.

These are just two recent examples of how social networks forced action by powerful organizations.

Others included the arrest of George Zimmerman in the Travon Martin shooting; and the loss of advertisers and a forced apology by radio talk show personality Rush Limbaugh after the social networks savaged him for offensive comments.

Why Is This Happening?

Before social media, information and opinion flowed from powerful organizations to the public almost exclusively, or remained in geographic isolation. Even information about public opinion could be spun to the very public that held that opinion.

Communication used to be one-to-one, or one-to-many. One TV network would broadcast to many viewers. If a viewer had a comment or complaint, that response was one-to-one -- an e-mail or a phone call -- and therefore totally ineffective as a form of public pressure.

Social media connects everyone to everyone, and makes communication many-to-many. Now, if someone has a comment or complaint about a TV network, it can go viral on the social networks and millions of people can join in with agreement. Not only does everyone hear the opinion, but everyone knows that everyone hears the opinion.

With millions of critical eyeballs tearing apart every news story and picking through the minutia of every report, errors, lies, hypocrisy and more are almost always found by someone somewhere, then those findings can also spread virally.

A general consensus. The conventional wisdom. Common knowledge. All these things now change overnight because of social media.

A bill before congress is contrary to the will of the majority. A mobile software utility violates privacy. A health-related non-profit plays politics. Dog food is in our children's hamburgers. A consumer electronics company is abusing Chinese factory workers.

Social media conversations, shares and re-shares turn these basic ideas into memes, which become their own kind of “truth.”

And that’s why powerful organizations like governments and corporations are afraid of social media.

The rising power of social media is happening fast. We’re rushing into a world in which the only way to exert real power is to influence opinion on social media.

Of course, when public opinion is divided, the power of social media neutralizes itself. And this will happen on most issues.

But when public opinion on the social networks is united, watch out! Nothing can stand in its way.

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