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Please check the social media weather forecast before you venture out

13 Jan 2021
   —  by Tom Randell

What could be the biggest “surprise” story of 2021 played out on our news screens last week.

But lots of people were predicting the events back in December. Those who claimed to be most taken unawares, despite social media being awash with planning and calls to action, were the combined security services of the most powerful nation on earth. I am of course referring to the riot at the US Capitol building on 6 Jan.

Social media is in the background of many of our lives, and we choose to demonise it while spending guilty moments feeding it with information about ourselves and hungrily consuming news about celebrities, our friends and their obsessions. We all have a few crazy acquaintances or family members on Facebook (Ed – speak for yourself) and feel inadequate about our Instagram posts (Ed – ditto). But social media is not just a fun distraction from what’s really happening in the world. “Hold on” you say, “do you mean I can either use Facebook to see my what my neighbour has had for their dinner or to find out where terrorists are plotting their attacks – like the protester patriots in Washington DC last week?”

Of course social media is full of humble brags about kids and kittens and an occasional terrorist plot but it is also a lot more. Here is where we get back to what happened at the Capitol last week. The point is that not everything – but almost everything – is now on social media, or if it’s not on social media there are probably signposts to it there. Information is often hidden in plain sight, waiting to be found.

Many people knew about the threats to storm the Capitol. They weren’t hard to find. What people lacked was the belief that a collection of comments on Facebook, Twitter, Parler and elsewhere added up to something meaningful. As the Security Services say “they failed to join up the dots”.

Analysing what people are saying on social media is not about analysing the comments of the lunatic fringe or the family photo posts of your grandparents. It means finding trends that indicate what could happen, or unearthing nuggets of information amidst the morass of junk that highlights something important you didn’t know before.

In communications it used to be possible to read press cuttings the day after news broke and judge the reaction to it over breakfast. Now what some call the mainstream media report in real time and on social media. If you can sift through all the data effectively then you can sometimes see the news that is coming the day before the media do their real-time reporting. You can be well ahead of the press cuttings, and indeed ahead of the mass media.

For social media analysis to work you need the resource to wade through the junk, learning what to look for and making sense of what is to be found. Effectively removing that burden from inhouse communications teams depends on the right technology and the right experience.

I started off above talking about the biggest surprise of 2021 (even though we aren’t even two weeks in). I suspect that was actually such a giant story it didn’t take much, if any, social media savvy to spot it, and the DC Police may have been slightly wilful in not believing what they saw coming.

But I hope they have got the message now about what might be coming next. And there will be other stories in 2021, about individuals, organisations and some broad and narrower trends – related to whatever and everything you are interested in.

Some of these trends and discrete pieces of information will be predictable through social media before they enter the mainstream. For some, you won’t see them coming and for others it will be possible to get something like a social media weather-forecast warning. If you don’t want to be caught out like the DC police in January 2021 then start to respect what social media can tell you – it’s not just kitsch and kittens. Adopt the same approach to social media as you do with the soon-to-be former US President – take it seriously but don’t believe each post literally.

Tom Randell