The Napalm Girl | Navigating the Civil and Political Implications of Social Media

Racepoint Global

RacepointGlobal’s SCE Miles Alexander, blogs about the increasingly polarity in social media; From political debates to issues of morality is the way we communicate being dictated and influenced by social parameters?

Facebook cocked up earlier this month. And the public outcry was simply testament to how social media is so far removed from where it started out. What was once a tool for community cohesion within personal networks, is now a magnifying glass on the pluralism in wider society.

The whole world shook its head and tutted in disappointment and disproval when one of the most iconic, truthful and utterly devastating images from the Vietnam War – now infamously titled ‘The Napalm Girl’ – was censored and ultimately removed from multiple pages on Facebook. It was described as a ‘curtailing of press freedom’; an entrenching of views. And for social networking giants like Facebook, their business value – traded in credibility – lost its strength. All governed by the very users who built it up into the commercial engine it is today.

This idea of language and content censorship – through image, word or emoji – is core to the way social media penetrates and influences our everyday lives. And with content production continuing to grow at explosive rates, there are rising concerns about the implications this media bombardment is having on civil society.

With an estimated 44% of Americans reading and watching news on Facebook, and 1 in 10 using social as their primary news source, social is being accused of restricting democracy. By curating content using algorithms, users are only presented with news that they want to be exposed to – often banishing that which opposes their own personal views and agendas. Therefore, in order for voices to be heard, social, at times, is a weapon for private and public power.

The vehicle that facilities this sense of power? Language.

This is most notably exemplified in the Trump/Clinton saga on Twitter; the ‘clap-back’ phenomena. Where individuals – who represent much wider views, beliefs and ideologies than just their personal opinions – summarise political agendas in 140 characters. Or in the case of British Prime Minister, Theresa May, three words:

TAKE. BACK. CONTROL.

A hard-lined, ‘I-mean-business’ statement that encapsulates Britain’s decision to leave the EU and combat the *threat* of immigration. Political campaigns are being actively influenced by social parameters.

And there are lessons to be learned from the likes of May, Trump and Clinton in the B2B communications world. As this greater sense of polarisation pushes progressive discourse in politics – and indeed the media landscape as a whole – PR professionals and marketers need to ensure they are optimising the messaging they deliver across social to cut through the heavily curated traffic.

Authenticity is key, especially on Twitter. Consumers are observant and aware. They know when a celeb, political leader or indeed, C-suite of a huge multi-corp brand is and is not generating their social messaging. So it is ever more important for PR people to really know their client; their tone, style, approach and arguably, most importantly, their humour. Social PR’s are employed to drive brand messaging and image reputation on Twitter primarily because individuals are too busy to optimise their own platform. Also because us trendy millennials understand the GIF, Story and Tweet ecosystems.

The image of the Napalm Girl serves as a reminder that, in the 21st century, freedom of expression and the right to express our views are intrinsic to our being. And as Facebook found out, there is a fine balance when navigating safety and public policy in social. For businesses looking to optimise social, buying in expertise from external experts could quite literally, save their brand.