If you are a digital marketer and think Russian Troll farms only impact the world of politics, think again….

By now, you have probably heard about how trolls and bots were used to influence the 2016 elections in the United States.  And if you are a marketer with expertise in Social Media, you can easily understand how Social Media Channels – because of their network effects –  can easily support the rapid dissemination of any messages – positive and negative.

If you are not familiar with how they work in the context of politics, let’s start with simple definitions:

  • Bots: automated accounts that repost content usually focused on a specific hashtag, or a specific digital destination.  A specific message can be disseminated in seconds by thousands of them working together without human intervention
  • Trolls: accounts created by individuals usually with a fake identity, focused on writing content – typically on controversial topics – that are then posted organically or promoted via paid ads and supported by an army of bots for reposts. These individuals are probably sitting somewhere in Russia but the accounts are  created as a 30 year old housewife in Michigan, or an 18 year old gun lover for example.

Bots and trolls can be found anywhere in the world, but the most sophisticated operation is found in Russia as they have used it internally to promote Putin’s agenda while making it seem like it is individual people talking about their priorities on social media.  This video provides additional information about the Russian troll farms.

Let’s say however, that you are not interested in politics, as a marketer how does this impact you and your priorities?

US social-media ad spend is expected to reach $14 billion in 2018, up from just $6.1 billion in 2013.   If you are a CMO or a digital marketer, you know a significant part of your budget is spent on social media.  But what happens when the platform includes a significant number of trolls sitting somewhere in Russia but posing as individuals in the US? The result is that audience metrics are significantly impacted and your money may be spent reaching out to fake accounts.

  • 10% of Facebook’s 2.07 billion monthly users are now estimated to be duplicate accounts, up from 6% estimated previously. The social network’s number of fake accounts, or accounts not associated with a real account, increased from 1% to 2-3%. These figures mean that there are now roughly 207 million duplicate accounts and as many as 60 million fake accounts on the network.  They say they are working on ways to take this into account when campaigns are being created but is it enough?
  •  Twitter is estimated to have about 50M fake accounts.

As advertisers more focus on having this issue fixed should be demanded. After all, you need to make sure your money is not wasted on advertising to fake accounts.  Technically it is probably a difficult challenge, but the same way that email systems had to find ways to reduce the impact of spam and work on better spam filters, it is time for social media organizations to add focus on technologies to help them reduce this problem.  A couple of ways that come to mind to address this problem could be to increase the use of machine learning models to support identification of bot and troll accounts, and the use of technologies like blockchain for digital id so that people on social networks are actually who they say they are.

United’s CEO Fails to Understand the Power Shift brought on by Social Media


By now everyone has seen the despicable way a United Airlines passenger was treated, forcibly being removed from a plane to release his seat to another passenger. I personally find the whole situation appalling but that is not what I want to discuss now. I want to talk about the way United’s CEO handled the situation, and how it clearly demonstrates a failure to understand how social media has shifted power from the few to the many.

Imagine if this situation had happened 20 years ago, before a world where social media was ingrained in our lives. Even if people on the plane had been able to take pictures or record video, what choices did they have to share them? The result would have been that only a handful of people would have heard the story. The CEO and executives in turn, would have also had a lot of power to control the message, and probably would have been able to get away with this without losing several million dollars in market valuation due to people’s outrage around the world.

But in fact what happened was that within minutes of this event, people around the world were seeing video and pictures of this physical assault, and people were waiting for, or in fact, expecting a statement from United’s leadership. So after the first failure at managing the overbooking situation, came the second: the CEO’s response.

  1. He apologizes for “re-accommodating” a passenger, assuming that would be the end of the history
  2. He proceeds to blame the passenger accusing him of being belligerent and indicating it is important to find out why “the passenger acted the way he did”. He also doubles down on congratulating his employees for a job well done. Tone deaf much?
  3. After losing almost a $1B in valuation at some point during the day he finally comes out with the statement he should have issued from the beginning stating “He is sorry. This shouldn’t have happened, and they will take measures for this not to happen again”.

Lesson to learn from this event? Corporations – and their leaders – cannot get away with a lot of the things they could have gotten away with in the past, and we have social media platforms to thank for that. Ideally, business leaders would care about their clients and their business, but even if as a leader truly in your heart you don’t care and your first reaction is to say “Not our fault. We did everything by the book”, know that most likely that statement is only going to amplify existing outrage.

Yes, you may think it is possible to do it seeing how some politicians get away with so much gaslighting these days, but they have something you don’t, and that is followers willing to be gaslighted because they are blinded by their passion for a political party. More likely than not your clients and others don’t have that level of passion for your business.

So next time something like this happens…. Stay away from the temptation to blame the victim and address the situation the right way, which includes any combination of:

  • We are sorry
  • The buck stops here
  • We are investigating
  • We are taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again

Don’t forget: social media has shifted the power from the few to the many.