The power behind the school student uprising that’s taking on the NRA over the US gun laws, is a warning to governments (and large companies) of what is to come. It was the same for the global #MeToo uprising, and a series of other uprisings built on social media, dating back to the Arab Spring – each becoming successively stronger. In the case of the student uprising, it has the potential to out-lobby the NRA for about the first time in history.

Why? Is it the power of social media, or the power of the media, or TV commentators, or more? Or is it also about us, something more fundamental about the way we are?

Think also of a more local issue: in Australia how the Barnaby Joyce ‘love child’ catastrophe spun out-of-control.

First, we communications professionals need to understand the complex set of interactions:

  • In each case, it starts with social media and other online channels becoming a focal-point for angry people: outrage.
  • But then there’s the media, which has been forced to respond to instant deadlines, as journalists’ stories must be published online. A story is now out-of-date almost as soon as it is published. A competing journalist needs to demand an ‘update’ or ‘something new’ to be relevant. But journalism-on-the-run is not informed journalism, so thoughtful commentary suffers.
  • With little rational debate, the public becomes swept up, more in the emotion, less in the facts or relevant policy, of the event.
  • With this issue-based tribalism, trust in our large tribal leaders – the politicians – is depleted.
  • All the more because politicians are also forced to respond to that new instant deadline, or be trumped by the opposition, and lose votes. So short-term stunts and exchanges become a requirement not an option. Hence the students, in the case of the Florida school massacre, get to meet the President in the White House.
  • Policy development all but stops. Trust in government is further depleted, so people become more reliant on issues-based tribalism for news.
  • It’s a negative feedback cycle. The issue spirals out of control of the political strategists and lobbyists who are outwitted and too slow to stay ahead of events.

But that’s not the end of it:

  • The same sequence with a different event can impact the share market.
  • It also impacts companies that don’t meet customer expectations.
  • It impacts schools, for instance, too slow to respond to the bullying issue: student distress becomes amplified.
  • It permeates family conversations, forced to grapple with issues on the basis of emotion not fact-based news and information. There have been a lot of arguments around dinner tables about the reaction/over-reaction of the #MeToo movement. We outsiders can only imagine how divided some US families are about the student uprising’s power to change gun laws.

Technology and social media is having unintended consequences on all of us.

But second, we need to understand why we behave the way we do: why does the information revolution impact us so powerfully? Do we need to understand ourselves, not the revolution, better?

If you’ve read Sapiens – the latest anthropological must-read – you might agree with the author, that this is our animal instinct: the need to be part of a tribe that dates back into pre-history. According to the author one of the most basic glues of society is gossip, good and bad. It is necessary to keep us together, as small groups, as families – gossip is the most basic form of communication. So our emotional responses to these uprisings are partly a base tribal survival response: instinct. But as we’ve evolved, says the author, what separated us Sapiens from the Neanderthals: our drive to learn, to share, and evolve.

If you’ve read The Square and The Tower you might agree with that author that this phenomenon has a yet unknown power to truly destabilise governments – another product of human nature. He says it’s the rapidly growing power of networks like social media and online publications (The Square) over slow-to-adapt hierarchies – governments (The Tower). Continuing that thought, you can see why the Russians, and presumably covert groups working for other governments, are so keen on using ‘troll farms’ to disrupt ‘enemies’.

So where is this heading? It’s dangerous to forecast; however, almost certainly organisations with the resources, including governments, are learning to use this to further manipulate our behaviour.

Clever governments will realise that the public needs to be taught to be more sceptical of instant tribalism, so we can’t be so easily swayed.

Meantime, expect an increasing frequency of spontaneous uprisings.

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