Influence is a tricky one to measure. The word itself derives from the Latin influentia, meaning an influx. Influence flows out, imperceptibly, and its effects are more qualitative than quantitative. Take the Sunday Times’s big splash this week revealing findings from its investigation into Labour’s dominance on twitter during the 2017 election. According to research from Swansea University over 6500 accounts grouped pro-Corbyn can be linked to Russian domains. Many of these were operated by bots programmed to retweet anti-Tory messages. Often appearing under a female avatar, could it be that the face of spycraft 2.0 is not so much Karla from le Carre but Carol from Dudley?
Err no. Even in the most extreme circumstances – such as reports of click bait sweatshops in Macedonia churning out anti-Hilary fake news during the US election – their influence is notoriously difficult to quantify. For sure bots are increasingly part of our media ecosystem and it is sickening to read about the millions of clicks some of the most egregious piles of pro-Trump bullshit received. But no one decided to vote for Trump because of a story about Hilary assassinating her rivals. And Labour really did dominate social media: 6000 Carols retweeting to their 40 followers is ultimately like branding a raindrop in a thunder storm.
The contrast with traditional media is stark. We’re constantly told that newspapers are on life support; lucky to have made it this far but putting off the inevitable print apocalypse. If measured only in terms of circulation we might concur that a trip to a Swiss clinic is in order. Yet we get a different picture when we look at the news agenda. Despite social media. Despite 24 hour rolling news. Despite the unpoliced digital churn of barely fact checked articles. Newspapers still matter. Just look at the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman and her investigation into the immigration status of members of the Windrush generation. This was a classic old media expose: rigorous investigation and lead-following over several months, amassing water-tight evidence and sources. Rather than breaking the full story the Guardian eked it out over a week for maximum impact, allowing the noise of the commentariat to grow and the knot on the Home Office to tighten. Ultimately it was Home Secretary Amber Rudd who secured her own noose.
In the communications industry influence is rarely spoken of. Digital gurus prefer to talk in terms of ‘engagement’ and ‘interaction’. The question of who has the power to mould opinion is often reduced to a numbers game, which confuses influence with reach. Yet it’s pointless to have a reach of a thousand-something if your message bombs. Click bait might seem like a convenient model but like a memo in Mission:Impossible it destroys itself on instant consumption. Influence is about tapping into the psyche of herd: it lingers. Newspaper journalism for all of its problems –financial, regulatory- remains the best vehicle for delivering these lingering messages. No, influence isn’t measured in clicks and likes. It’s measured in Amber Rudds.