If any social media agencies doubted the importance of their industry, those doubts should have been put to rest on Thursday. That was when the White House hosted a number of prominent but controversial social media figures at an event dedicated to examining the idea that unspoken bias influences the way companies like Facebook and Twitter operate. While there’s some debate about whether the president’s accusations of social media bias have any merit, there’s little question as to what this event says about the power of the platform.
Of course, this power has already been demonstrated again and again by President Donald Trump’s propensity for using Twitter to communicate directly with the American people. But it’s fair to say that Twitter’s dominating influence over the headlines in mainstream media reflects a much larger phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that well-established social media agencies have been tapping into for a long time, often with profound implications for their clients.
At this stage, no one should need to be informed about the extent of social media’s influence or the reason why major platforms are now being scrutinized by the federal government. But the contentious nature of Thursday’s event highlights the minefield that social media agencies could be wading into as they try to utilize those platforms to promote certain clients and certain message in the current environment.
Bots and foreign influence operations have become household terms over the past three years. That conversation has changed the way some social media outlets operate. But President Trump and his supporters are now trying to send the message that there’s another side to the coin. Some of them are evidently concerned that there’s been too narrow a focus on certain flaws in the system. This may or may not be the case. The White House event may or may not have been justified. But we’re not interested in resolving that debate. Our concern has to do with what it means for social media agencies when people think the system is rigged in one way or another.
Those agencies’ clients don’t need to be overtly political to be adversely affected. There are ongoing disputes about the legitimacy of various accounts and about the boundaries between terms of service enforcement and “deplatforming.” And these have the potential to spill over into everyday interactions among users and social media agencies, or between brands and prospective customers. Complaints that were unheard of a few years ago have now been normalized, and that means people are more likely to lash out strongly if they feel they have been shut out of social media dialogue, even if it’s just with a commercial account.
The only advice that we can give in such a short space as this blog post is: tread lightly. Chances are that at some point, the role of you social media agency is going to involve conflict resolution. And amidst all the recent controversies, it is important to handle emerging conflicts diplomatically. In the long run, this could have a positive effect. People tend to create their own echo chambers on social media, but that’s not good for dialogue and it’s not good for advertising. If social media agencies can develop a skill for keeping antagonistic users around by nudging them into line with a platform’s terms of service, those people will feel less silenced.
Sometimes, when people feel they’re being heard, they’re also more willing to listen. And if social media agencies can coax this out of people rather than shutting them out, those same people may convey brand messages to entire audiences that would have otherwise been left untapped.