Tag Archives: contagion

When a Meme Becomes a Social Movement — Chaos Theory and the Al Franken Resignation

16 Jan

Blog post graphics.002      

    In Shakespearian tragedies, kings and lovers alike are brought down with daggers and potions.  In today’s tragedies, they are brought down with tweets and hashtags.

   The remarkable and sudden fall of US Senator Al Franken is a unique case study in chaos theory, contagion, and the resulting social movements that create new order.  It is not just the story of David throwing a single tweet at Goliath—it’s also the story of ten thousand re-tweets, each with the weight of a stone.  The social narrative gives cover for suppressed victims to thrown their own stones.  Despite all efforts at containment and crisis management, the outcomes are as unpredictable as a creative Saturday Night Live sketch that bombs, or a brilliant legislative package that can’t gather enough votes.  In Franken’s case the unpredictable became inevitable.  It forced Franken to resign from the US Senate.  Goliath fell.

   By itself, the tweet seen around the world from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden of Al Franken appearing to grope her chest during a 2006 USO tour was a powerful image.  Even though the picture was taken before Franken became a US Senator, it creates a strong cognitive intrusion into the known and expected behavior of a person of power.   But the visual dissonance of the image carried even more weight against the backdrop of social chaos already underway with the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

   When actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of harassment in a October 5th “New York Times” investigation it created its own cognitive intrusion into the reputation of one of Hollywood’s most successful film makers.  The Times investigation uncovered eight settlements paid out to women for their silence on Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior.   The story was David’s stone cast into a pool of water.  The ripples are the basis for what social scientists call the modern embodiment of chaos theory.

   Chaos theory has its roots in mathematics and physics where researchers such as Edward Lorenz found that even minor variances in complex computational models led to unexpected and contradictory equations.  Lorenz called it the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately affect weather patterns weeks later.   Increasingly applied to social science, chaos theory holds that small events cause ripples that eventually amplify into meaningful movements.  University of Amsterdam researcher Jaap van Genneken notes that within a collective adaptive system such as public opinion, those small events or voices can multiply through media channels to become a powerful and shifting force.

   That’s exactly what Ashley Judd started.  Within seven days, former actress Rose McGowan also publicly disclosed Weinstein had assaulted her and reached a settlement in 1997.  Two days after McGowan, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo.  By the next morning 30,000 people did.  The hashtag shot like its own stone into the public consciousness.  The voices of three women suddenly identified an issue that had been covered up for too long.

   In an age where we communicate at the speed of light, more women saw the light.  Chaos became a contagion.  But it was more than Weinstein.  Accusers came forward targeting politicians, actors, ceo’s, musical directors, even Today Show host Matt Lauer.  Perhaps the most famous target, Alabama US Senate candidate Ray Moore, was accused of sexually targeting teenagers when he was in his 30’s.  

Senator Tweets

Figure 1 – December 6th tweets of women U.S. Senators calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign

   This was the chaos and contagion that encircled Al Franken like a swarm of Davids.  By the morning of December 6th, a seventh woman accused Franken of attempting to kiss her.   That same morning TIME named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year.  In its cover story TIME wrote, “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”   Within hours, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken’s resignation—seven more women senators joined her in short order. (Figure 1)  Those were David’s final stones.  The next day, Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the US Senate.

 

 

Contageon Timeline

Figure 2

  Although Franken’s communications team tried to counter the attack by producing testimonials from former women staffers on his thoughtful and supportive treatment of them and his championing of women’s issues, it couldn’t compete in a climate of #MeToo contagion. (Figure 2)  Google Trends data clearly shows a timeline of the chaos and the shifting social attitudes.  A TIME/Survey Monkey poll conducted between November 28th and 30th showed 82% of respondents were more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations.  Furthermore, 85% said they believed the women making the allegations of harassment.  

Linear vs Networked Models

Figure 3

   But the phenomenon also speaks to the changing nature of influencers in an environment of fragmented media.  It demonstrates how the old rules of linear communications models with thought leaders at the center have given way to randomized networked systems of influencers. (Figure 3)  Columbia University sociology researcher Duncan Watts has established a model where movements are not necessarily driven by a single person or media channel, but instead by cascades of easily influenced people.  Those cascades turn global—or large—when a critical mass of early adopters connect with each other in the influence network.  Although Watts argues the critical mass may only occupy a small fraction of the population, the cascade effect becomes global when the remainder of the population activates as well.

   This is essentially what happened on the morning of December 6th, when the seventh accuser stepped forward against Franken.  She may have been a small influencer, but timed with the release of TIME’s “Silence Breakers” it built the critical mass that gave cover for the coordinated call among women senators for Franken to resign.  Accelerated by social and digital media, the cascade became unstoppable.

   One of the principals of chaos theory is the self-organization that occurs after the chaotic state or crisis.  In other words, there’s a return to a new order.  In the case of the chaos brought on by the Weinstein accusations there is an emerging re-organization on several fronts.  First, in Hollywood, the creative community has formed the “Times Up” movement creating new awareness and expectations for worker treatment in the entertainment industry.  Second, industrial giants such as Ford have already reexamined HR policies including harassment training at its manufacturing plants—especially in Chicago where complaints surfaced.  As for Al Franken’s senate seat, there is also new order.  A woman—former Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith has replaced him in an orderly transition.

   Like the butterfly’s wings, a single voice can still create the stone in David’s hand, or the dagger in Shakespeare’s play.  And in today’s world of digital communication the contagion they can generate are exponentially powerful at creating disorder and reorder.

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Pink Slime — Anatomy of a Contagion

23 Mar

The gooey mess known as Pink Slime has suddenly become a public relations mess too.  But, how did it go from a food additive to a food disaster in record time?  A large part of the answer lies in the power of social memes and the ability of key audiences to spread it like a contagion.

Figure 1 - Pink Slime

Let’s break it down.  In this case, the food additive included in some forms of processed beef came with a descriptive slang name and an iconic image: pink slime. (Figure 1)

In its basic form, pink slime a substance made from the rendered connective tissues and intestines of cows.  Because those tissues are susceptible to e-coli contamination, they are processed with ammonium nitrate to kill the bacteria and act as a preservative.   For years the FDA has approved the additive as a safe filler for meat products.  But when an image and video of the substance appeared in the news reports in early March about its presence in school lunch hamburgers, pink slime became a household word as fast as parents could hit the “send” button on their computers.   As a Google Trends analysis shows, pink slime went viral in a matter of 24-hours and has not let up since. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - Google Trends

Three key factors are involved here.  First, the image itself of the pink slime became what social psychologist Jaap Van Genneken would call a strong replicator.  In other words, it’s an iconic image that developed and sealed an emotion in the minds of the viewer.  In this case, the image leads to the very human response of questioning what this substance is doing in our food—especially our children’s food at school.

Second, the image sealed itself in the minds of an important audience.   That audience is mainly women, in particular, the mothers of school children.

Third, these women not only saw the image of the pink slime included in stories in various news media, they spread the story to their friends and peer groups in social media.  My own audience research among social media users indicates that women are heavily invested in, and are heavy users of social channels.   They not only use social media as a way of discovering news from their friends, but to share news and issues that are important to them.   When this story broke, the image, the issue, and the salience to their children and families created its own perfect recipe for a modern-day social issue contagion. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 - Contagion Model

The result has been a sudden abandonment of meat products containing the so-called pink slime.  Several major grocery store chains have now said they have stopped ordering beef products containing the additive.   One of them is Twin Cities based SuperValue which owns and operates Cub Food stores throughout the Midwest.   Here’s its statement:

“We’ve heard concerns from many of our shoppers about the inclusion of finely textured beef in some of the ground beef products available at our stores. Effective today, we have made the decision to no longer purchase fresh ground beef products that contain finely textured beef.”  -SuperValue

            The power of the contagion lies in the statement’s first sentence.   Consumers spoke up.  SuperValue listened.  It’s a 21st century lesson in the speed of which issues closely tied to strong memes can spread, and the power of key audiences armed with a “send” button.

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