Social media: marketing magic but a disaster for politics?

Ryan Erskine recently argued in an article in Forbes that a prominent and well-received digital presence is crucial for the commercial success of a business in this technological age. This is also true of the public sector. While political figures and organisations do not need to appeal to customers, having a polished online footprint to present to the general public is critically important to build and maintain a good reputation.

Social media platforms serve as one of the key channels through which such organisations and individuals publish content designed to engage with customers, clients and other stakeholders. However, social media has recently demonstrated that it can have a rather darker side; due to its far-reaching, international and instantaneous nature, it has a permanently active and receptive global audience. This gives awesome power to its users, as anyone with an account is afforded the ability to become an author, journalist, or political commentator, and to impact upon the reputations of others. The past couple of years have demonstrated that this power is no longer intangible and isolated to the digital realm – it can have a quantifiable effect on the material world. The scandal involving the use of Facebook by Russian operatives to sway the 2016 American Presidential election is a prime example.

More recently, the collapse of the lira in Turkey demonstrates the far-reaching impact of social media posts: the government has apportioned part of the blame to the spread of “fabricated news”. Tensions between Turkey and the US, which escalated from Turkey’s imprisonment of an American pastor to economic sanctions imposed by both sides, has seen the lira depreciate in value against the dollar by more than 45% this year. Adnan Bali, the General Manager of Turkey’s largest bank, stated that whilst fiscal policies contributed to the collapse of the lira, they are not solely to blame.

Turkey’s Interior Ministry has launched an investigation scrutinising 346 social media accounts which are accused of publishing “provocative posts to shape perceptions”; users found guilty of spreading “erroneous and fabricated news and statements” intended to influence the markets could face prison sentences of up to five years. According to the Turkish government, the impact of social media here was twofold; online commentators, dubbed “economic terrorists” by President Erdogan, not only proliferated the story of the weakening of the lira, but also possibly contributed to the currency collapse itself.

In a country like Turkey, where restrictions on free speech seem to be becoming par for the course, shifting the blame to journalists and social media users is not entirely unexpected. However, the issue of fake news has become a topic of heated debate over the past year worldwide; it is worrying that online posts from international users can impact not only the reputation of a country, but also the results of an election, or the status of its currency, and thus the broader global economy.

Perhaps the extent to which users can be held accountable for posts which are not law-breaking, but “provocative” and consequential nonetheless, is a question that will need to be addressed on a global scale.

Read more PG Insight