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Q&A with Andrea Forte: Social Media Campaigns

August 3, 2012

Andrea Forte

Last month, Twitter exploded with users retweeting tweets by the user @ShellIsPrepared, supposedly a Twitter account set up by Shell Oil. The user tweeted frequently, asking other Twitter users to stop retweeting tweets that cast Shell in an unfavorable light, threatening to take legal action on users who would not comply. This only provoked Twitter users further, resulting in thousands of retweets that had users convinced that Shell Oil’s Social Media team was spinning out of control—a lesson in how not to run a social media campaign.

As it turns out, the @ShellIsPrepared account does not belong to Shell Oil—it belongs instead to Greenpeace and a social activist group called The Yes Men. This account—along with the website—is part of an elaborate hoax that intends to draw attention to (the real) Shell Oil’s plans to drill in the arctic. The hoax is roughly a year in the making and has fooled thousands of people, showing that despite all of our Internet savvy, we can still fall victim to a well-executed trick.

DrexelNow spoke with Dr. Andrea Forte, assistant professor at the iSchool, about this hoax and what it means for social media usage.

This was an effort to draw attention to arctic drilling; do you think this stunt brought attention to that particular cause or did it just make Shell look bad?

Or does it make Greenpeace look bad? Does it make people feel like they’ve been duped? There’s a lot of different effects an effort like this can have on people, and one of them is to laugh and think it’s hilarious that someone is lampooning Shell—if they realize that this is actually a hoax and therefore not real. There’s the possibility that people might become aware of an issue they were unaware of before and that’s the hope of the people who started the campaign. But there’s also a possibility that people will think it is juvenile. You’d need to do some more detailed evaluation of people’s responses to understand what kind of impact this will have. It’s kind of like campaigning in politics—you put forward your best possible message in the most creative and clever way that you know how, but you can’t predict how exactly people will respond.

In this case, about 3,000 people reacted to the @ShellIsPrepared account, retweeting updates or otherwise drawing attention to Shell’s supposed public relations meltdown. Do you think people were playing along or were they really fooled?

There’s no way to ascribe intent to a retweet. That’s one of the problems researchers of Twitter have, actually. For example, depending on who’s retweeting it, a retweeted political message can have very different meaning. If I see someone whom I know to be very liberal retweeting a conservative message with the comment, “Awesome,” I know that’s facetious—because I know their politics. But if I see another individual whom I know to be very conservative retweeting that same message and saying “Awesome,” I ascribe very different meaning to that. So until you have a deep understanding of the context of every individual retweet, it’s very difficult to understand why people are doing this. This is why something like sentiment analysis, which researchers use to understand the way a given population feels about a particular issue by analyzing online statements, is so important. There are some things that can be identified, but it’s very difficult to get a machine to understand whether a message is positive or negative, because in human communication context and interpretation are very important.

This is not the first—or last—time that social media will be used to influence the masses. As social media users become more sophisticated, do you think they’ll be better equipped to distinguish between fact and fiction?

There’s actually a long history of people using media to convey messages, whether for political purposes, marketing and branding or art. The War of the Worlds was a radio play that aired on October 30, 1938. Even though it was about an alien invasion, it sounded plausible because the writers used the medium of a radio broadcast in ways that simulated an authentic emergency situation. It was just a radio show, but some people panicked and became terrified that we were being invaded by aliens. Others thought it was clever and fun to listen to. So, what was the difference between those who responded with fear and panic and those who responded with an appreciation for the subtlety of the performance? There’s some sort of media literacy skill at work there.

Part of what my research focuses on is information literacy, which is the skillset that people need both to contribute to online information sources and to learn how to be a critical consumer. There is a lot of information out there that has been produced by individuals who are unknown and un-vetted, so developing a set of skills that enables you to distinguish between good and bad information is becoming a much more complex (and in my opinion, interesting) task.