For any one set of facts, there are countless “narratives,” or interpretations through an ideological lens. “Factions” (small, hyper-passionate online sub-cultures) devise narratives to draw attention to their agenda of choice. But sometimes, a narrative spin pulls an unsuspecting brand into a political whirlwind they never wanted or even dreamed they’d be a part of. Not fun.
So what exactly are narratives? How are they formed and amplified? Why don’t legacy media monitoring tools work well to track them in today’s internet? And how can a brand block a negative narrative’s impact?
What is an online narrative?
If you take a step back from technology in order to put the definition of a narrative into human terms, it’s multiple people with the same point of view, talking about the same thing, within the same period of time.
Topic + Collective POV + Moment = NarrativeFormula for an online narrative.
So for a current example, take companies weighing in on new voting bills in Georgia. One narrative says, “Corporations are using their influence to affect positive social change and protect their customers from political disenfranchisement.” But another narrative says, “Activist corporations and their leaders are succumbing to the demands of the woke mob.” Both narratives refer to the exact same set of facts, but they are developed, framed, and amplified by different factions in order to serve their own agendas. And, brands from Coca-cola and Merck to American Airlines and UPS have become an integral part of the conversation.
Or let’s say a production company employs non-traditional casting for the newest movie in a beloved franchise. One narrative says, “Acme Production Company casts leads that look like modern America in a win for representation and diversity.” And another narrative says,”Acme ruins a film franchise and my childhood memories by virtue signaling rather than sticking to the script.” Same movie company, same casting choice, way different agendas.
Why is my brand getting attacked online? What did we do?
Ironically, the faction who has swooped old Acme Productions into this furious socio-political discussion may not even care about Acme or their movie franchise. But they do care a lot about protecting the racial/gender status quo, and they know that Acme gets a lot of attention. So guess what, Acme? You’re in this conversation now whether you like it or not, because you’re a useful cultural touchstone, and a faction knows it. You can’t control when or how a faction chooses to create a narrative that includes your brand, but you can prepare a solid action plan by understanding:
- Who is spreading it and how
- Whether it’s likely to pick up steam or fade away
- When it’s about to hit the mainstream
- What is the current risk to your brand
You just have to know what you’re really up against.
Who spreads a narrative?
Yonder has identified three main types of factions when it comes to driving a narrative to the mainstream: Originators, Amplifiers, and Bridges.
- Originator: A small but passionate faction who cares more about an issue than everyone else. They tend to dwell in siloed information spaces where they fuel radicalization around a topic. They frame that first narrative, write those letters, put together the memes, and work to get the ball rolling because they are seriously serious about it.
- Amplifier: These are groups more interested in social engagement than any one particular topic. The largest Amplifiers are often political amplification networks (i.e. #bluewave), designed to support a national issue or representative. Amplifiers can be found on mainstream platforms like Twitter or a large sub-Reddit, and are helpful for escalation and gaining attention.
- Bridge: These are people who make a living being provocative and connected. A Bridge might be a podcaster, opinion columnist, legislator or candidate, actor or influencer who spots emotional narratives through Amplifier factions, then shares them with their own audience to maintain relevance. Think George Takei.
How does a narrative spread online?
Simple answer – highly emotional stories tend to catch fire and you don’t have to fact-check social media.
We’ve all heard the stories of one motivated person manipulating the media. Perhaps he spray paints on his own house, then sends a picture of the defacement along with an outrage letter to a small blogger. That small-timer won’t fact-check, but will rage-blog. Then the provocateur takes said small-time ragey blog post and points out that coverage to larger blogs. They don’t want to be left out, so they dash off some lines of fury for their readers. The story trades up, and up, and eventually major media comments. One lie has fed the attention/engagement machine, and everyone benefitted. Except for the innocent group who was initially blamed for the spray paint job. They suffered. And of course in this case, so does the truth.
It’s the idea behind virality. Factions create the impression that a narrative is engaging by engaging with it themselves, and other factions craving attention share it. The result is narrative spread.
What can Yonder do to help? Or, are we doomed no matter what?
Not even. It’s just that old methods of on/off lightswitch analytics really don’t help anymore. Legacy social media monitoring techniques propose that you count the number of times a word or phrase is used on social media or in news headlines in order to track engagement. This can be helpful, but isn’t really actionable. It’s very noisy, and doesn’t offer the context of a narrative, a faction, or their agenda.
For example, your brand name starts popping up in memes all over Twitter. “Great! Everyone is talking about us right now, and it all looks fun and positive!” But you didn’t know the narrative associated with those memes is in support of an agenda antithetical to your values, and you actually need to get an action plan and statement ready.
Or conversely, your CEO starts her day with forty angry emails in her inbox. “Oh no, what have we inadvertently started, how many thousands of people do these forty letters represent, and who do we need to fire?” Turns out by understanding the originating faction, the answer might just be, “do nothing, it’s really only forty people who joined together in a brigade to take us down, just for the lulz.”
Understanding the narrative, its factions, and its place along the narrative spread timeline can help you plan your course of action, or inaction as the case may be, and keep your brand one step ahead.