Junkfood Science: Online social media — marketing in disguise

August 23, 2009

Online social media — marketing in disguise

Millions of Americans have received emails and read blogs and commentary on social media sites and never realized that what they were reading was carefully crafted marketing messages from the government — paid for with their tax dollars and manipulating them to support government agendas, programs and legislation.

Today’s news exposed that the White House had hired a private social marketing firm to distribute mass emails and unsolicited spam to sell President Obama’s health care plan. The firm, GovDelivery.com —“the email and digital subscription management company for the government” — hired last January by the White House, has handled social marketing emails to sell the administration’s campaigns on a range of issues, including its Supreme Court nominee and healthcare reform.

This is not news, of course. JFS has been cautioning for years that social media marketing sites and blogs are inundated by entities who are not who they seem, even as they’ve skyrocketed to popularity. GovDelivery has also made no secret of its success and the fact that it has been hired by more than 250 government agencies and sent out more than 118 million emails in January alone. People weren’t paying attention.

In a March 10th press release, the St. Paul, Minnesota company, said it expected the government to send out more than 1.5 billion emails this year through its service. Earlier this week, Inc. Magazine rated GovDelivery as one of America’s fastest-growing private companies, with a total of 300 government entities, including over half of all federal agencies, state, county and city governments.

Scott Burns, co-founder, was quoted in Washington Technology in July, saying: “To me, technology is the biggest opportunity we have to make citizens better citizens and government better government.” But concerns have been raised about how the government is gathering the emails of private citizens and when does government “communications” to citizens cross the line to propaganda and monopoly on information, squelch debate and steer public discussions? Can citizens critical of the government have an effective voice against 1.5 billion emails, armies of online trolls and social media marketing paid for with unlimited government funds?

Swine Flu, The Brand. One of the most unsettling examples of GovDelivery being used by the government has been the social media marketing campaign by the CDC to build panic over a “swine flu” pandemic. GovDelivery said it helped “brand” swine flu and grow the CDC’s email lists by 103,000 in just two weeks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has used GovDelivery to spread “awareness” of a “H1N1 pandemic emergency” through a combination of email, social media, compelling content, and creative marketing approaches, as it explained at a Federal Consulting Group seminar on May 28th. It’s been effective in raising fear and media coverage far beyond the science and evidence that’s shown the virus to not be particularly dangerous. It has helped to build support for the CDC’s pandemic recommendations for businesses that will risk shutting down businesses and the economy; its plans for mass vaccination of half the country's population within months; and its recommendations for H1N1 vaccinations, even though the clinical trials to determine effectiveness, dosage and safety and side effects aren’t due to be completed until mid- to late-October.

As JFS has examined, it’s easy to manipulate public opinion. Saturating the media, giving more attention to a scare and increasing “public awareness” serves to heighten perceptions that the danger is real and the threat is significant. We see that with all types of disease mongering, camouflaged as health education. We see it with messaging about healthcare reform that counters what’s in the actual legislation if anyone took the time to read it.

As Peter Wason’s research showed nearly half a century ago, few people test their beliefs. Most people resort to social consensus to judge the truth of a belief, as research at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, showed. If a lot of “people” around them appear to believe something, most people think there must be something to it. Most people want to be accepted and don’t want to seem different from the group to speak out or to think for themselves.

Marketing professionals understand the psychology of disinformation and fallacies of logic better than most consumers, which is why social media is the fastest growing marketing venue. According to the Association of National Advertisers, two-thirds of marketers use social media and it’s expected to grow to a $3.1 billion industry over the next five years.

Please be careful out there. Do your own research, go to original sources and think for yourself. The source of a belief and its popularity are never measures of its credibility — some of the greatest pseudoscience and falsehoods have been wildly popular and issued from reputable institutions and sources. Learn about the fallacies of logic and psychology of disinformation being used to sell you something. Don’t wait to see what’s popular among your online “friends.”

© 2009 Sandy Szwarc

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