If you ever wanted to see an example of why it is so hard to manage reputations in today’s world of clickbait, professional outrage machines and judgements made at the speed of scrolling, then you don’t have to look any further than the recent media furore over the altercation between the students from Covington Catholic High School, Mr. Nathan Phillips and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Consider it, the entire trans-Atlantic media repeatedly paused to pass comment on a strange, harmless altercation. This wasn’t just tabloid tattle, eighteen individual articles appeared in the New York Times over a five-day period alone. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into the distorting impact that Twitter’s algorithms and interaction model. A post wins the game of Twitter when it is shared quickly, and a way to disagree without sharing means that controversial comments are the fastest to spread. This is a system open to manipulation. In this case, a mysterious account named @2020fight shared its outrage over the video, earning 2,500,000 views. An impressive haul for any account. Even one that tweets 130 times a day, every day. Well, until it was suspended by Twitter, fuelling speculation that Russian Intelligence ran @2020fight to funnel outrage and division into the American consciousness. Just a small soldier in the fight to undermine wider American morale and cohesion. By the time @2020fight was caught, it was too late. The story was appearing on the Twitter homefeed of the journalists, the agenda was set, and The New York Times was busy writing the first of 18 consecutive articles. All for a story that didn’t matter enough to risk the future and safety of a child.
Cyberwar isn’t fought for a nation’s resources, but for its soul. It is no wonder that reputations are being destroyed so constantly and so quickly. But it isn’t only the stakes that are staggeringly dangerous, it is the very environment in which these wars rage. It is thought that more than 40% of web traffic isn’t human, but bots masquerading as people enveloping areas of the internet that they are aimed at. This is the outrage era, where media personalities of all sizes do their best to seize the agenda by landing the heaviest blows and earn the propellent of sinister, mechanical boosters. And we are in danger of not even noticing.
We are in an age where lives, reputations, businesses and legacies are dragged into disgrace, often even before the target knows that they are under attack. Forget the monster who deserved the condemnation that they have had. You will probably have seen prominent men, good men, drown under waves of co-ordinated anger, as a handful of disgruntled ex-colleagues circulated in vague petitions, that get picked up by a professional outrage merchants. You would see a figure only able to watch, mute, as adult journalists fired up the vitriol in the comments section. These men lose their income and their reputation in a single morning.
Consider the difference between the reaction of this businessman and the school boys. Whilst the businessman sat mute, the school boys deployed the most powerful media weapon on the planet – Fox News. They too, unlike the businessman, found themselves on the right side of a raging culture war. They relentlessly pushed out defensive talking heads and revised footage until at last they stood vindicated. Compare the reactions to crisis and compare the outcomes. In the perception age, when the online rage mob knocks on your door, you need to have a robust communication strategy already in place and the ability to land lightning fast counter punches to stand any chance at protecting what you’ve spent your entire life building.