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Factions: Mapping the Internet's New Dynamics

Feb 6, 2020

You're an analyst on Peloton’s marketing team, a home fitness unicorn that just dropped a slick new holiday ad. Coffee in hand, you return from Thanksgiving break to an out-of-hand inbox due to an unexpected and inexplicable Twitter backlash that’s blowing up your phone.

You watch helplessly as your company’s valuation drops $1.5 billion.

The CMO wants your analysis within the hour. How did this happen?

This week, Yonder’s CEO Jonathon Morgan and Director of Customer Success Melissa Lipscomb hosted a webinar that answers precisely this question. The answer is relevant both to Peloton and to any brand concerned about public perception and consumer sentiment.

Click play below to watch the webinar. Here's the TL;DR:

  • The internet is run by power groups online called factions. They are the invisible forces driving viral stories and online narratives.
  • Not all narratives are created equal: many are fringe agendas made to appear mainstream, and many are artificially engineered.
  • Factions have the power to co-opt brand platforms to tell their own story.
  • Social media analytics must go beyond tracking mentions and engagement.
  • A complete analytical toolkit requires new indicators that track behavior, coordination, and movement — not just volume or velocity.
  • With the right toolkit, brands can get advance notice of an emerging narrative, plan a response to protect reputation, and stay ahead of the news cycle.

The Coordination That Shapes Culture

Peloton’s story is all too familiar to brands everywhere.

Maybe your company has inadvertently been caught up in controversy because of a former executive’s ill-advised Tweet. She’s long gone, and her political stance doesn’t reflect your brand’s values, but demand has plummeted and you’re left wondering how to shore up dismal sales numbers.

Or perhaps business has been growing steadily until a heretofore unknown YouTuber released a video complaining that your product is harmful and should be taken off the market. Nevermind that these claims are unsubstantiated, malicious hearsay motivated by brand takedown rather than transparency. The video has already been shared by hundreds of bloggers and journalists are calling you for comment.

The fact is, 60 percent of Americans choose or boycott a brand based on its societal values, and fake online narratives spread 10 times faster than the truth.

Fake online narratives spread 10x faster than the truth

A New Landscape of Online Conversation

How do specious online narratives migrate from little-known accounts in the nether corners of the internet into the mainstream, and swiftly shift conventional wisdom? This phenomenon has not been well understood in the past.

Motivated, passionate voices tend to be more extreme and provocative — and therefore, more shareable — than their moderate and less exciting counterparts. Simply by being loud and noticeable, these groups often fool journalists into reading a fringe narrative as broadly representative of public sentiment.

Just as often, the sheer amount of viral conversation acts as a barometer for the level of interest or consensus on a given topic. This assumption ignores the fact that a large number of viral narratives are artificially engineered. That’s right — they are not even real, but they still get counted.

We call these groups factions, the invisible forces driving conversation — and persuasion — on the internet.

But it’s hard to understand something that you can’t see. The internet needs new metrics to demystify faction-driven narratives by tracking behavior. In other words, we need to look at coordination, and movement, not just volume.

The modern analytics toolkit captures engagement on the whole, spotting in-the-moment trends and treating all users and content as equal and authentic. While providing a critical piece of the picture, these platforms are not designed to uncover the hidden patterns of online conversations and predict what is going to trend when.

To complete the picture, brands require insight into origin, motivation, and trajectory, the essential inputs needed to protect brand reputation in a rapidly-evolving cultural context.

Internet Dynamics Have Changed

At Yonder, we’ve been studying these hidden structures of the modern information ecosystem for the past four years. And we’ve uncovered some common features of faction behavior:

  • Factions consist of hyperactive social groups that cohere around shared values, interests, behavior, and conversations. They bond over what they love or hate, and they are loud.
  • Because factions are highly motivated and invested in their firmly-held belief systems, their very behavior plays into the inherent mechanics of social media and the modern internet, which rewards virality and engagement.
  • By leveraging the nature of the social web, factions amplify and spread their narratives faster than brands can draft, approve, and roll out a messaging campaign, capturing a disproportionate share of voice online.

71% of online narratives are originated by just top 10% of the factions.

  • Factions have the power to hijack high-profile brand narratives to spread their own ideologies and point of view into the mainstream.
  • Brands find themselves unwillingly roped into bewildering narratives they did not foresee, craft, or even understand.

Consumer perception of a brand’s value used to be shaped by paid campaigns. That’s no longer the case. Consumers now buy into a brand based on how online culture shapes their idea of the brand, and brand managers are not the sole arbiters of their company’s position in popular culture.

Gone are the days when a company can buy an expensive ad targeting a demographic of upwardly-mobile, health-conscious young women without taking into account beliefs and value systems. Consumers congregate around common passions and ideologies, not age, gender, and income groups.

Where Yonder Narrative Comes In

Factions are not an internet bug; they are a feature of human nature. Humans have always organized themselves into factions — social groupings that coalesce around shared values, interests, and convictions.

There is nothing inherently nefarious about it! As social creatures, we evolved to associate with like-minded people whose preferences, biases, and points of view mirror our own. It’s how we advance as a species and pass on our genes.

The reach and velocity of information transfer on the internet, however, give factions new power to amplify their voices and inject their beliefs into the mainstream. Brands that ignore factions leave their reputations exposed to narrative manipulation.

Towards a More Authentic Internet Where Brands Can Be Real

Back to you, bewildered Peloton brand analyst!

Over a week and a half elapsed between the launch of the ill-fated holiday ad and the start of viral backlash against it. What if, in that time, you had received an alert on this emerging narrative before it became viral? What if you could identify the “Patient Zero” who originated the narrative, understand how it traveled between factions, and give your communications teams advance notice of an upcoming media hit? Could your brand have been better prepared to respond to or even shorten the entire newscycle?

We built Yonder Narrative to arm brands with the intelligence they need to navigate a faction-driven internet. We track approximately 400 distinct online factions, and that list is constantly being expanded and refined to keep pace with conversations that are shaping public sentiment. By tracking how narratives move across the faction universe and measuring the “distance” between distinct factions that are discussing the same topic, we can predict which narratives are likely to make a leap into the mainstream and escalate into a viral phenomenon.

When brands aren’t scared of the internet, they can be themselves, connect with their audiences on their own terms, and contribute to a more authentic online ecosystem.

Understand how factions can exploit your brand. Stay a step ahead of emerging narratives. Take action to protect your brand.

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