By Samuel H. Blair — a 2017 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, is the founder of Influencers for Action, is a master student at the University of Dayton and a former policy aide for Nan Whaley for Governor.
Problem Statement: Policymakers in 2019 face societal challenges caused by technological disruption of the media industry. Young people (18-24 year-olds) receive information through social media outlets more frequently than from traditional media sources[i]. This media consumption trend is reshaping how citizens perceive the role of established institutions in our society. Simultaneously, business models for traditional media organizations that increasingly rely on digital advertising revenue to operate are evolving in response to changes in social media consumption habits that drive digital advertising revenue[ii, iii]. Media business models are significantly affected by the algorithms of social media platforms that dictate how much digital advertising revenue media outlets generate on the basis of social media user consumption[iv]. In January 2019, thousands of journalists were laid off from established media publications as these firms struggle to compete for financial viability in a system where advertising revenue is increasingly absorbed by technology firms like Facebook and Google [v]. The media industry status-quo is unsustainable because technological disruption has decreased the quantity of advertising revenue available to finance media firms. Policymakers should fund a non-profit organization that disseminates news through the platform of social media influencers to reach large audiences at a low-cost in order to protect democracy and maintain an informed citizenry. This non-profit media organization is Influencers for Action and it functions as National Public Radio for a new generation that receives more news on social media than radio.
Background: Demographic profiles of the average social media user vary by platform, but there is no denying a fairly recent trend toward increased use of social media for news over time[vi]. Trust in the accuracy of news acquired from social media varies by age group. 47 percent of millenials think that most of this news from social media is accurate, whereas 60 percent of social media news consumers over the age of 65 expect it to be mostly untrue[vii]. This statistic provides context for the fact that twice as many young adults say that politically biased media coverage was a factor in their loss of trust in the media compared to older adults[viii]. This paradox is resolved by a study from the Media Insight Project that found when Americans encounter news on social media, how much they trust the content is determined less by who creates the news than by who shares it[ix].
This context presents policymakers a radically different media ecosystem in 2019 than the information environment of the 20th century. Previously, policymakers could easily relay the intent of government policies to the public through popular television, print, and radio news sources. Today, it is much more difficult to effectively reach the public with a coherent and uniform messaging strategy. Citizens now receive their news through a variety of information sources, but the data clearly indicates a trend toward social media. Policymakers should adapt to this new information environment by working with trusted, popular social media users known as “influencers” as a method of communication that is much more suited to the 21st century than what worked for policymakers of the past.
Policymakers should recognize that influencers constitute a new segment of society with the power to mobilize other members of society through information technology. Social media influencers are often paid by brands to platform their products to their large audiences. For example, Kylie Jenner is one of the most prominent social media influencers in the world. Ms. Jenner is followed by approximately 129 million people on the social media platform Instagram, and it is reported that she receives $1,000,000 for each of her influencer marketing advertisements[x]. Governments have used public-access television, publicly-funded radio stations, and advertisements in newspapers to inform their constituents about public resources in their communities for years. These authorities now commonly use the internet to relay information about government services to their constituents, but something is missing. It is not difficult to reach large audiences in a small amount of time through paid-advertisements placed on popular social media websites, but this efficient method of public relations lacks a crucial quality of influencer-led communications: trust.
The manner in which social media influencers present themselves online to their audience generates trust between influencers and their followers. The trust between an influencer and their followers is the differentiating factor that separates influencer-led communications from any other public relations effort. Trust creates a powerful principal-agent relationship between influencers and followers[xi]. The size of an influencer’s audience varies depending on the influencer in question, but it is not uncommon for a social media influencer to possess an audience size in the range of a couple thousand to a million people. In light of this fact, it is not difficult to argue that the trust between an influencer and their followers is valuable for its potential to influence the behavior of a non-trivial amount of people. Society stands to benefit from an organization with the power to direct the population’s attention to important community resources such as information about voter registration deadlines, how to volunteer at homeless shelters, and how to donate to food banks. Influencers can mobilize society toward solutions to community-based resource degradation, and directly combat challenges such as homelessness and hunger.
Proposed solution: Policymakers should utilize the social capital of influencers to affect the behavior of their constituents in order to achieve policy objectives such as solutions to hunger and homelessness. Research published in 2015 illustrates that social media users tend to trust influencers comparably to their friends[xii]. This observation is striking because it offers governments a path toward sharing information with large audiences while adding an additional level of trust that lends significant credibility to the value of the information. This influencer-led method of communication with the public is necessary now in 2019 more than ever because the public’s trust in governmental institutions and the media is in decline, and a solution is needed urgently to restore citizen’s faith in democratic forms of government.
Influencers add trust to a recommendation that is absent from information presented by a faceless entity such as a corporation or a government agency. A significant number of social media users report that they have lost trust in the media due to clickbait[xiii]. This type of content is increasingly prevalent on social media platforms, and it is another problem solved by a nonprofit that can facilitate influencer-led messaging campaigns. Clickbait is informational content produced solely for the purpose of generating increased engagement on a social media post[xiv]. This type of content has become more commonplace on the feeds of social media users over time because it is designed to generate revenue for media firms. These traditional media firms have been left with essentially no choice but to publish clickbait more frequently as competition over advertising revenue increased from technology firms like Facebook and Google[xv]. A non-profit media organization can broadcast useful news as a means of combating community-based resource degradation much more efficiently than for-profit media outlets whose content is distorted by a profit-motive and clickbait. An editorial department housed in such an organization could tailor actionable information for influencers to share on social media that ultimately shifts society’s attention to challenges such as hunger, climate change, and poverty. This outcome is better for society’s general welfare than the status-quo.
The media industry for the past ten years has been defined by the rapid growth of the digital advertising market. In 2009, digital advertisements occupied only 17.2% of the advertising market by media type, behind both television and print[xvi]. In 2019, digital advertisements are the most popular form of ads by media type. Now, 38.9% of all advertisements are placed on digital platforms[xvii]. The rapid growth of the digital advertising market has been propelled by consumers’ increased use of mobile phones to receive information over the same time period[xviii].
Influencers for Action addresses the crisis in media by increasing the public’s trust in important information, which is commonly referred to as “news”. Government use of social media influencers to promote policy goals has been deliberated upon at length by the RAND Journal of Economics, and this theory was applied in 2018 by the Australian government[ixx]. Unfortunately, the influencer-led messaging campaign expended by the Australian Health Ministry did not properly vet the influencers selected for disseminating the news content sponsored by the government. This campaign resulted in public backlash when citizens learned of controversial behavior that influencers engaged in before they were compensated by the government with taxpayer money for their participation in the government’s messaging campaign[xx].
A more regulated and structured organization can solve the problems encountered by the Australian government. Influencers for Action is a proposal for a nonprofit organization that facilitates social media influencer marketing for government policies and community resources. This organization can achieve success by indirectly compensating influencers for their participation in government-sponsored messaging campaigns. Specifically, Influencers for Action should operate on a break-even basis as a marketplace that facilitates influencer marketing opportunities with local businesses as a reward for influencers’ participation in government-sponsored messaging campaigns. This proposal offers policymakers the ability to respond to the technological disruption of the media industry by utilizing emergent trends in social media to support communities and effectively inform citizens.
Influencers for Action can fill capacity gaps for governments at different levels that seek to mobilize the population toward achieving policy goals. For example, Influencers for Action organized 25 Instagram influencers native to Dayton, Ohio in a promotion of the city government’s Living City Project. This project mobilized volunteers toward a cleanup of vacant lot waste, and over 215,000 pounds of trash was collected in sum [xxi]. Influencers for Action curated an infographic that local Instagram influencers shared with their large followings. The infographic informed individuals who viewed the content that they could sign-up to volunteer for the Living City Project by visiting the Influencers for Action Instagram account and clicking the link at the top of the page to sign-up to volunteer. This influencer-led messaging campaign resulted in dozens of clicks on the volunteer sign-up link, and increased the total number of volunteers available for this city government policy. Influencers for Action can mobilize volunteers for similar policies such as efforts to alleviate hunger, or shift society’s attention to important community resources such as the availability of public transportation. A nonprofit funded by government development services, high net worth individuals, or grantmaking organizations can change the way that people learn about the world, and can therefore change it.
Desjardins, Jeff. “Chart: The Slow Death of Traditional Media.” Visual Capitalist. October 07, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/chart-slow-death- traditional-media/. (web source)
Dreyfuss, Emily. “Who Gets Their News From Which Social Media Sites?” Wired. September 13, 2018. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/who-gets-news- from-social-media-sites/. (web source)
Dunn, Jeff. “The Difference between How Millennials and Baby Boomers Consume News, in One Chart.” Business Insider. June 26, 2017. Accessed February 23, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-millennials-vs-baby-boomers-get-news-chart- 2017-6. (web source)
Dvorkin, Jeffrey. “Column: Why Click-bait Will Be the Death of Journalism.” PBS. April 27, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/what-you- dont-know-about-click-bait-journalism-could-kill-you. (web source)
Ell, Kellie. “Tina Brown: Facebook and Google’s Influence on the Media Is ‘appalling’.” CNBC. January 11, 2018. Accessed March 11, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/11/tina-brown-facebook-and-googles-influence-on-media-is-appalling.html. (web source)
“Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt Has Ordered His Department to Stop Paying Social Media Influencers.” ABC News. July 21, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-21/stop-payment-to-influencers/10021134. (web source)
Frampton, Ben. “Clickbait: The Changing Face of Online Journalism.” BBC News. September 14, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-34213693. (web source)
Frolik, Cornelius. “Dayton Living City Cleanup Collects over 215K Pounds.” Dayton Daily News. April 09, 2019. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/breaking-news/dayton-living-city-cleanup-collects-over-215k-pounds/RqBDYlvxCbnIOtjWSTnJLL/. (web source)
Galeotti, Andrea, and Sanjeev Goyal. “Influencing the Influencers: A Theory of Strategic Diffusion.” The RAND Journal of Economics 40, no. 3 (2009): 509-32. doi:10.1111/j.1756-2171.2009.00075.x. (journal article)
Goggin, Benjamin. “More than 2,300 People Lost Their Jobs in a Media Landslide so Far This Year.” Business Insider. March 11, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/2019-media-layoffs-job-cuts-at-buzzfeed-huffpost-vice-details-2019-2. (web source)
“How People Decide What to Trust on Social Media and Online.” American Press Institute. May 24, 2017. Accessed February 18, 2019. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/news-trust- digital-social-media/. (web source)
Ingram, Mathew. “How Google and Facebook Have Taken Over the Digital Ad Industry.” Fortune. January 4, 2017. Accessed March 13, 2019. http://fortune.com/2017/01/04/google-facebook-ad-industry/. (web source)
Ingram, Matthew. “Most Americans Say They Have Lost Trust in the Media.” Columbia Journalism Review. September 12, 2018. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/trust-in-media-down.php. (web source)
Mejia, Zameena. “Kylie Jenner Reportedly Makes $1 Million per Paid Instagram Post-here’s What Other Influencers Get.” CNBC. August 01, 2018. Accessed March 14, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/31/kylie-jenner-makes-1-million-per-paid-instagram-post-hopper-hq-says.html. (web source)
Neidig, Harper. “Media Industry Braces for Facebook Changes.” The Hill. January 14, 2018. Accessed March 11, 2019. https://thehill.com/policy/technology/368825-media-industry-braces-for-facebook-changes.
O’Reilly, Lara. “The Race Is On to Challenge Google-Facebook ‘Duopoly’ in Digital Advertising.” The Wall Street Journal. June 19, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-race-is-on-to-challenge-google-facebook-duopoly-in- digital-advertising-1497864602. (web source)
Swant, Marty. “Twitter Says Users Now Trust Influencers Nearly as Much as Their Friends.” Adweek. May 10, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.adweek.com/digital/twitter-says-users-now-trust-influencers-nearly-much- their-friends-171367/. (web source)
[i] Dunn, Jeff. “The Difference
[ii] Ell, Kelli. “Tina Brown: Facebook and Google’s Influence
[iii] Ingram, Mathew. “How Google and Facebook
[iv] Neidig, Harper. “Media industry braces for Facebook
[v] Goggin, Benjamin. “More than 2,300 People Lost Their Jobs
[vi] Dreyfuss, Emily. “Who Gets Their News
[viii] Ingram, Matthew. “Most Americans Say
[ix] How People Decide What to Trust
[x] Mejia, Zameena. “Kylie Jenner Reportedly Makes
[xi] Swant, Marty. “Twitter Says Users Now Trust
[xiii] Ingram, Matthew. “Most Americans Say
[xiv] Frampton, Ben. “Clickbait
[xv] Dvorkin, Jeffrey. “Column: Why Click-bait
[xvi] Desjardins, Jeff. “Chart
[xviii] O’Reilly, Lara. “The Race Is On
[ixx] Galeotti and Goyal. “Influencing the Influencers
[xx] Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt
[xxi] Frolik, Cornelius. “Dayton Living City