We are what we say: Why and how news outlets and politicians must manage the talk and behavior they influence

January 12, 2011
Posted by: Peter Friedman, Founder, Chairman & CEO

Written by Peter Friedman and Jenna Woodul
In the wake of last week’s shooting in Arizona, debate rages about whether the vitriolic dialogue in politics and news is a cause of the tragedy.We don’t know a direct link exists from that discourse to this disturbed young man’s actions. But we do know that words count. In fact, in our socially networked world, words count more than ever before. Sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, conversations on social networks drive relationships — and then, in turn, behavior.
2008 study by Harvard Medical School and University of California San Diego researchers has actually proven the dynamic exists. As noted in a review of the study by the Washington Post, “Many behaviors are swayed by social networks in ways that have not been fully understood…” On a similar track, does political rhetoric influence people’s opinions, feelings and behavior?  Of course it does. That’s why the news outlets and politicians do it — to drive buzz, ratings, loyalty, fundraising, and votes. It’s why they increasingly are focused on talk, talk, talk. And why they have websites and Facebook Pages. Inspiring talk is intended to inspire. Inflammatory talk is intended to inflame. Political rhetoric spawns discussions, influences opinions, and drives behavior.

The challenge of a changing environment

Given the convergence of social media, news, and politics, we have a never-before opportunity for massive inclusion and participation in the dialogue of our society. With that, we also have a never-before challenge to be civil and constructive instead of destructive. Social media and online social culture reflect and magnify our society and culture overall. This fundamental dynamic has become all the more obvious in the wake of last week’s tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, with the ensuing dialogue and rhetoric. While the shooting has been the top topic across all media, it’s been dwarfed by the conversations online. Facebook alone reported that in the first 24 hours after the shooting, they counted at least three million posts on the subject. The discussion volume on Facebook, just one social network, likely had more comments than all traditional media channels (TV, radio, print) put together.
We need to fully understand that the power of social networks to amplify rhetoric and affect behavior is here and cannot be stopped. When influential sources actually publish websites with words and graphics that motivate people, further supported by Twitter and Facebook comments, they’re likely to stimulate even more dialogue. The difference between effecting constructive results versus destructive ones comes down to how the conversational venues are managed.  In our view, the players must first acknowledge their impact on the dialogue. Then they must pro-actively manage the venues where it takes place.

Managing the point of convergence

Various news outlets and other sites have been known to shut down their comment boards, because they were overwhelmed by the chaos and negative content. Managing a conversational environment can be daunting, and we sympathize with these organizations. But web conversations can’t be shut down, any more than an ostrich with its head in the sand stops a thunderstorm. With great power, comes great responsibility. Failing to proactively manage venues for dialogue is abdicating that responsibility. In simpler words, either put up (a social network conversation and manage it) or shut up (completely — don’t open your mouth on any media outlet).
At the core of this week’s discussion is the question (maybe even the accusation) that the vitriolic rhetoric in congress, on radio and TV, and on websites has gone too far, has even contributed to the murders. Politicians and traditional media all talk about not speaking so harshly on TV and radio. But such communications channels are easy to control, if their owners choose to control them. What about social media? Can it be controlled? Should it be?
First, we must separate the concept of managing people’s behavior toward one another from that of controlling people’s content. In the offline world at a political or news forum, most news companies or politicians would not allow people to throw bricks at each other, shout so much that nobody else can be heard, or allow a town hall to be shut down due to harassment. A matter of culture in a democracy, free expression is allowed as long as it doesn’t cause actual damage. Freedom of speech is sacred, but not to the point of falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Rules of the road and culture are among our offline discourse best practices that can be successfully applied online as well.
In our 27 years experience managing social media — in some cases for giant social networks, major news outlets, and even a political campaign — we’ve seen again and again that news and political sites tend to jump to extreme binary choices: Either don’t touch any user content for fear of appearing to censor, or just don’t have user content (shut it down) for fear of what the content will be or worry they will be overwhelmed by it. Neither of these is the best approach, from a social media, business, or societal perspective.

7 best practices

By following the seven best practices we outline here, news and political sites can engage and embrace user content, effectively managing it to allow for a participatory society, often with meaningful dialogue. Along the way, they can gain audience share (a business goal for both news outlets and politicians) and tell their story (the creative and business goal for news outlets and politicians) — all while containing destructive behavior. Let’s take a look:

1. Build a cultural model that supports the brand values.

For news outlets, the brand is the news brand, or a specific media show. For politics, the brand is usually the candidate or political party — sometimes the specific issue position. Establishing the cultural model is the single most important best practice, yet the one most often skipped. The model envisions the way people will interact — how they’ll express themselves, connect with others, and get or give attention.

2. Set the rules of the road: Establish, publish, and moderate to enforce guidelines.

In a social network venue, the rules of the road are moderation guidelines — what is acceptable language, behavior, and conversational fodder for this site. Is this a family-oriented site with no profanity, child-appropriate topics, and casual supportive behavior? Or is it an adult-oriented site, with edgy subjects, and profanity allowed? Are hate comments and harassment allowed or not?

3. Have human eyes review the content.

Building a culture, managing rules of the road, and handling that cascading behavior dynamic requires human beings looking over what’s happening on a site. Yes, software tools can help with speed, volume, quality and insight. But these tools should be used to support people making judgments — not to replace the human factor.

4. Engage proactively to set story, tone, and context.

As a site publisher, you can’t just react to what happens when users arrive. It’s critical to execute your cultural plan and empower your moderator hosts to participate — programming the venue by giving people something to do, something to contribute to, build on. Feature the type of content and conversation that fits the culture and behavior you want to stimulate. If you’re looking for civil and provocative discourse that’s intelligent and compelling, then that’s the type of discussion to feature.

5. Be prepared to scale your response, not your anxiety.

What happens when the volume and intensity explode, and you and your team are overwhelmed by an onslaught of activity?
First, if you have followed best practices 1,2,3 and 4, you’re not alone. You have an established culture, rules of the road, and a core community that is with you and will help you.
Even so, when mass volume hits, you need to be ready to manage it. And it can be brutal. We’ve had experiences with tens of thousands of posts a day or more, with 60% of them needing removal. Ideally you have a trained team to moderate (in-house or vendor) that is ready to scale up. Best practice is to have a social crises management plan — ready ahead of time — that anticipates sudden volume surges and how to respond to them.
Most important is not to give up, not to shut down the site. While it may temporarily cost more to manage all those comments and discussions, it’s worth it. The sudden volume, if well managed, will increase the size and loyalty of your core audience — translating to audience and ratings for a news outlet, fundraising and votes for politicians.

6. Use conversational applications for real conversations.

Strong conversational applications let people go deep on distinct subjects. A message forum, for example, lets your audience members or constituents talk to each other — not just to broadcast their random comments. A topical structure makes it easier to moderate inappropriate contribution, minimizing interruption and distractions. Overall organization is hierarchical and parallel; it threads the comments within one conversation together for easy navigation, and the conversation remains, so that individuals can find and join it again. And strong moderation tools are a must.

7. Coordinate with law enforcement officials and social support bureaus (such as suicide lines).

Responsibility in a social network includes follow-through with the offline world. The larger the service, the more intense the subjects, the more likely such connections are required. Many times we’ve seen an online community come together and help someone stay alive or work with law enforcement to track down criminals.

Amplified talk requires amplified responsibility and management

The issues we face today — whether vitriolic rhetoric, violence in our streets, or the capacity to influence the opinions and behavior of others — aren’t new. The potential value or threat of such influential power to a civil and democratic society isn’t new. What has changed is the velocity of conversation and the speed with which behavior is influenced; it has been amplified by modern media — most especially social networking.
And such velocity holds true, whether for the good or the bad. Rather than try to control it or avoid it, we simply need to amplify our responsibility for and management of it.
About the authors
The authors, Peter Friedman and Jenna Woodul are the founders and executive officers of LiveWorld, a leading provider of social network solutions to Fortune 500 corporations. They have over 25 years of experience creating, managing, and moderating social networks, including for major news outlets (MSNBC, ABC), political campaigns (Hillary Clinton For President), and brands (Apple, AOL, eBay, American Express, P&G, Unilever). LiveWorld has delivered over 1.5 million hours of moderation, managing online communities for hundreds of clients in dozens of countries and directly touching hundreds of millions of online users.
About Jenna Woodul
A LiveWorld founder, Jenna is LiveWorld’s Executive Vice President & Chief Community Officer. LiveWorld’s strategic community model evolved from her 20 years of first-hand design and management of online social venues. She oversees LiveWorld’s community programming and moderations services and is executive sponsor for several LiveWorld clients.