The below is a transcript of a lecture I gave at the University of Sheffield (@sheffjournalism) on Friday 3rd May 2013 to a group of Journalism students. During the talk I deviated often from the script, and we had a lively Q&A session after my presentation, the content of which is not captured in the below.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this lecture, please do not hesitate to contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the same contact details if you would like me to give a similar presentation to your class, organisation or company.
Wednesday 15th May 2013
Social Media, Journalism and Politics
Many of you may have preconceptions of what social media is and what Social is for, especially when it comes to their use in the spheres of both Politics and Journalism. Before I go on to illustrate ways how social media is, and can, be used by journalists and politicians for both broadcasting and listening purposes, I want to be clear about the terminology we are using.
Social media is not a technological platform or medium; it is a process. The best definition of social media I can give is that social media is an overarching term to describe people’s online interactions through websites, online programs and mobile phone applications, through which they share information, create original content as well as online communities and networks.
Social media is characterised by the interaction of online users, whether it be public conversations or the promotion of each other’s content. This is distinct from the use of or the interactions on a traditional website, as the content on display can only be published by that site’s webmaster or approved administrators, whereas publication of content is not necessarily restricted on the social networks, where social media interactions take place freely and users have their own distinct identity (profile) on the social network they are publishing to.
Social media content can consist of the written word, video or audio recordings, graphic design (infographics) or photographs; as long as it can be shared or commentated on freely, it is considered social media content. Such content can be as short as a single sentence or be a series of articles or video recordings, but most social media postings are usually quite brief given character or time limitations imposed by the social networks, with most postings referring other users to more substantial content hosted elsewhere on the internet.
There is an important distinction to make between social media and the social networks. Social media is the phenomenon of the interactions of people online itself along with the content that is generated as a result, where as a social network is the platform on which this takes place. Popular social networks include Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Others too are growing in popularity such as Google+ and Pinterest. Often social networks merge, with a dominant partner acquiring another platform, as such was the case of Facebook absorbing Instagram into its own network functionality. Google make it a key strength of their brand that all their platforms (YouTube, Google+ and Gmail) are all managed and linked to one user profile and dashboard.
Away from these main social networks, certain types of websites and communication tool are also considered to fall under the definition of social media, such as internet discussion forums (the forerunners of the social networks we use today), open video and audio streaming sites (YouTube, Vimeo), blogs (Blogger, LiveJournal and WordPress) and recordable video conferencing (Skype, Google Hangouts).
Most people who use social media have profiles on more than one social network, and often use different social networks for different purposes, often demarcated between personal and professional use. This work/life divide can often result with some users having more than one profile on one network so as to distinguish to other users in what capacity they are posting (this is common practice on Twitter), although some social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn regulate against individuals having more than one profile under their terms and conditions.
Most social networks encourage users to have profiles as individual users, although companies and other organisations can and do have a presence on social media as well. Sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn encourage users to create a dedicated page or company profile away from their own individual presence on the network, with these pages having special properties that assist with the promotion of that interest as well as aiding the social networks themselves, through the imposition of fees to gain those pages wider exposure beyond the actions of the individual who set them up.
So, as you can see, social media takes many forms and will continue to encompass an increasing array of published human interactions as communication technology continues to evolve and democratise at an exhilarating and alarming rate.
Given this large sweep of what constitutes social media, what are the ramifications for the journalist and politician today?
I think the most notable facet is that people are increasingly turning away from traditional news sources such as major television networks, newspapers and magazines for their news, putting a new-found reliance instead on the intimate and instantaneous nature of social media. With a minimum of two finger swipes on my mobile phone, I can view a variety of social media feeds that offer instantaneous reportage, comment and content on breaking news stories or developments. The veracity of all of this content and comment is questionable, a point which we will return to later, but the fact remains that people surf social networks on their downtime, whether it be on a tea break or waiting at a bus stop, in the manner with which their forebearers would have idly flicked through a tabloid newspaper. In many ways, the habit of news consumption is not new but the medium is, thereby increasing the pertinence of the content to the here and now. This has shaped how journalists both share their work as well as research it, and politicians see social media as a direct, unfiltered way with which to communicate with their constituencies with an immediacy unparalleled since the days when Gladstone and Disraeli spoke to thousands at political rallies or public gatherings in the 19th century.
The second most notable impact of social media upon journalism and politics is that anyone with a proactive social network channel is now a media entity. We are all publishers now, and with barriers of social network privacy forever being incrementally lowered, any content we post online is easily searchable and therefore quotable. Whether it be a pithy tweet or a polemic blog, we have all become willing although maybe unconscious commentators, and what we post online, collectively, informs the journalistic news cycle and the political agenda, with maybe the social impact on the former resulting with changes to the latter, rather than the social media sphere having an effect on the political world directly, although this too is changing…
This tweet here, a hoax posting by a hacker on the Associated Press’ own Twitter feed, caused stock markets to fall upon its publication. Let’s pause to reflect on that. A sentence of around 140 characters, upon publication online via a social network, probably changed the financial fortunes of many in a significant way. The irony here, and it is particularly pertinent for this talk, is that were it not for the transposed validity of the Associated Press’ brand upon the tweet, the wider ramification would not have happened. Even in the revolutionary, protean world of Social Media, we are still reliant on the perceived credibility and reputations of organisations and individuals established elsewhere and in tangible terms in the offline world for the acceptance of facts.
The third most important aspect of Social Media upon politics and journalism is that of access. Individuals can contact both journalists and politicians in digital, i.e. real, time if they happen to be on social networks. If you have a story or issue that you want to share, in theory you can lobby the press and politicians within a matter of seconds. Indeed, entire campaigns have been built up and advanced in the blogosphere, and promoted through the use of other social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. The campaigns run from the frivolous (bashing Simon Cowell in the race for the Christmas Number One song in the charts) to the serious (Justice for Hillsborough).
Social Media has created a new strata of journalism and journalist celebrity on the blogosphere. Paul Staines’ distinctly Libertarian Guido Fawkes blog persona has broken stories that have gone on to shake the British political establishment (admittedly by the story then getting picked up by more established and traditional news outlets), and a new generation of political commentators here in the UK have made their name in the social sphere, such as Iain Dale or Laurie Penny (aka Penny Red), who then make the transition across to broadcast and print journalism.
Social media commentary still has connotations of the Wild West frontier about it, which is why it makes it more popular and more unreliable than traditional broadcast channels. Often issues subjected to libel laws or super injunctions in the UK are talked and speculated about freely on blogs such as Guido Fawkes, who take precautions such as hosting their blogs on servers outside of the UK.
Having said that, there is an increasing mood and demand for regulation to be put in place over public expression in social media, as the Newsnight / Lord McAlpine debacle all too clearly illustrates. For those of you who are not aware of this story, it involves a BBC current affairs programme investigating a cover-up of a child abuse scandal in North Wales that revolved around the alleged participation in the original crime by a senior Conservative Party Cabinet Minister in the early 1980s. BBC Newsnight’s own Twitter feed teased the story on the day of broadcast, leading to online speculation of the identity of the former Cabinet Minister. Come the broadcast, the figure was not actually named, although this encouraged further speculation about the figure central to this report, with a rumoured leak stemming from the production office. As it turned out, the abused individual at the heart of the story had wrongly identified the man who abused him as the innocent Lord McAlpine, the name that had been widely speculated on Social Media. However, given the spread of the rumour and speculation, Lord McAlpine has taken legal proceedings to clear his name in the public domain (some of which are still going on) as he was clearly innocent of and remote from the crime, and indeed was never charged or questioned about it in the first place.
This horrendous mess shows off the lack of veracity behind much of social media, and the increasing need of journalists not to desert their training when seemingly presented with a scoop of a lifetime. The story also demonstrates that not anything goes online, and that we all have to be mindful of what we publish online as there can be some real-world ramifications – some just, some not so much.
What the Lord McAlpine affair demonstrated was the credulity and lack of judgement of some leading commentators and public figures who weighed into the affair and the general speculation, such as George Monbiot and the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sally Bercow. In fact, it was these figures wrongly naming the wrong names that added weight to the story and thereby heightened the damage done to Lord McAlpine rather than the story just doing the rounds on social media. The moment an establishment or semi-establishment figure weighs into the debate, seemingly verifying speculation conducted on social media, the audience then tends to accept the speculation as fact and gospel truth. And it is this which is the new, modern major pitfall in using social media, such as journalists using social media to source their stories, or for politicians and other prominent public personalities or institutions trying to maintain reputations in an online, scurrilous world.
How do I use Social Media?
Given all of that, how should journalists and politicians go about using social media? The key thing to remember is that social media is just as much about listening as it is about broadcasting, and that’s why it’s important to be on the right social networks and to use the right third-party app to utilise them.
My personal preference is to use Hootsuite, which is in effect one dashboard that allows me to monitor and manage my presence on numerous networks. Unlike the official applications provided by the social networks, an application such as Hootsuite (TweetDeck is another) allows you to see so much more of what is going on online, including the ability to see at a glance who has publicly messaged people of interest as well as doing geographical sweeps of predetermined areas for certain keywords or phrases. For example, if you wanted to see who was talking about the Conservative Party or a particular politician on Twitter within 10 miles of Cardiff, you can do so by editing the search functionality with Hootsuite using geo-coordinates taken from Google Maps.
However there is a lot that you can do on the basic networks themselves. On Twitter, the most useful thing you can do is set up a Twitter List or Lists. In short, Twitter Lists are a way of following people on Twitter without following them, and this is done by creating a List within Twitter and then assigning other Twitter users to it. This can be done publicly or privately, and you can subscribe to Twitter Lists created by other people.
The benefit of this is that it allows you to filter and curate content according to your journalistic needs, adding or removing users as and when they become or cease to be relevant to your research.
In a similar fashion, LinkedIn and Facebook groups are other forums within which it is easy to gauge opinion and discover new stories, as well as to make new connections that could be beneficial to your work or research. Google+ is also becoming more popular, and its communities and circles functions provide other avenues of information from which you can draw upon.
That’s the monitoring, which is a vital first step that will help inform any content that you will be writing with any specific target group in mind. Now we are to discuss the broadcasting and engagement component of Social Media.
If you are looking to build an online presence, I have the following 11 tips for you, which I will illustrate with examples of my own work in a moment or two:
- Register a presence on all popular social networks, even if you are not planning on using them all in the first instance – this will protect your own personal ‘brand’ if you have any kind of success.
- Ensure there is a visual and stylistic consistency to all your different network presences; this will help cement your presence in the eyes of others.
- Always have a place where you can host your own content away from social media, as this is where ultimately you will be wanting to steer people towards. Also, you have no rights as such to be on any given social network; their terms and conditions change continually, and who is to say that you will always have access to the network, or whether that network will archive your material? Always, always ultimately own your own online content.
- Start following and connecting with the right people, and start interacting with them in an intelligent manner.
- Start generating your own original content.
- Start sharing your content and that of others in an intelligent way on social media. Get it out there, but don’t spam.
- Make sure you give credit where credit is due.
- If suitable for your campaign, brand or self-promotion, consider paying for targeted advertising on social networks, making the most of their demographic breakdowns and general information.
- Start using metric programs such as the one found in Hootsuite and also Google Analytics to see which of your Social Media posts or content is the most effective and popular; this will give you some indication of what’s working and what’s not, and the results should inform your next steps.
- Get on Google+, as you will want to be registered as an author for the search engine. This will help your rankings within the search engines.
- Don’t forget SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) for your original content. This is half the battle – content needs to be repurposed for online effectiveness.
In terms of the real-life application of the above, I can cite several examples where I have used these principles in my own work. When I worked as a Communications Manager for Magstim, a leading manufacturer of devices used in neuroscience, I built up a Twitter feed (Neuromodulation News) which had over 3,500 relevant Followers, which became vital in the promotion of new products and major events which the company sponsored.
How was this done? In part, it was done by following the key opinion leaders in the field and retweeting their content in addition to our own. It helped that we had strong offline relationships with these people, but new connections were made and relationships were forged through the use of social media as well. I then ensured that these new Twitter connections were migrated to a dedicated LinkedIn profile I had for my neuroscience work (although there are reasons why you shouldn’t have two LinkedIn profiles, which I can expand upon in the Q&A session after this talk).
We also took care with our branding of the Twitter feed and with our messaging. We called it Neuromodulation News (or @Neuromodulation), not Magstim, as we wanted this to be a genuine resource for the neuroscience community, not a corporate mouth piece. You have to be seen to be adding value to other people’s lives on social networks, otherwise they will not engage with you. It is only when you have added value that you can you start to be more self-serving in your use of social media. At Magstim we did this by tweeting links to the latest scientific abstracts in the neuroscience field as well as to pertinent stories in the popular press as well.
And we weren’t entirely reliant on Twitter, either. LinkedIn and LinkedIn Groups became a great launch pad for our annual international conference in Oxford. Again, by sponsoring the event and co-opting an academic committee, the company was seen as adding value to the research community rather than just selling to it. By using LinkedIn and Twitter alone, with a carefully thought-out series of different messages about the event, we at Magstim managed to sell out all tickets in advance, which was something we never managed to achieve in previous years using traditional marketing.
Since launching Nick Lewis Communications, I have used these many skills to promote my own company. Since starting to use Google+ in a serious way a couple of months ago, I have found that placing for content I have written in Google search engines has shot up. Get a Google+ profile, and ensure that you highlight on it the websites that you have contributed to, and this will build up your reputation as a ‘trusted author’ in the eyes of the Google algorithm. There is also an added bonus that Google+ may now finally be taking off, certainly if my interactions on the platform in the US are anything to go by.
Even though I have talked about the application of these techniques to the promotion of a medical device manufacturer and of my own marketing business, I think you can easily see how these can be transposed to any specialist area you want to establish a reputation in, whether it be for journalistic or political purposes. I am happy to expand on any of this in the Q&A session after my talk.
What does the future hold for Social Media?
Are you familiar with Google Glass? Well, for those of you who are not, it is a wearable technology with all the functionality of a modern mobile phone combined with video streaming capabilities. To be launched by Google later this year, this will see us all living in a consumer-driven surveillance society, in which the amount of content shared online will go through the roof. In terms of journalism, this will increase the access to footage of breaking news or events, and for the politician it will increase the chances of their gaffes being recorded and shared for all to see.
It will be an interesting time. If the current social networks and the use of social media have turned everyone into their own online publishing house, the advent of Google Glass and competitor technologies will soon see everyone becoming their own television broadcaster and film studio rolled into one.
Can the news cycle be accelerated even further? We shall see, but I suspect it might overheat in any consequences coming from these new technologies.
However, I cautiously predict that any further growth spurt in online content will see us returning to core journalistic principles and to the traditional media corporation model within the next ten years. The proliferation of content will just be too much for the individual to trawl through, and there will be a desperate demand for someone or something to curate and analyse all the material. This is not to say that the use of social media will decline (far from it), but we will see those bodies or those skills that have been earmarked for redundancy resurge as people realise the need for them and as the institutions and skills in question learn to adapt to the modern age. Just as radio was written off as dying medium only to be revived by the internet itself, we will see traditional journalism re-emerge in robust fashion, harnessing the better elements of the Social Media conversation.