THE TECHNOLOGY OF INFLUENCE
As long as there have been people, there have been “influencers.” Tech has taken the game to a whole new level
Nitin Agarwal, Ph.D., Maulden-Entergy Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Science, Director, Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), University of Arkansas at Little Rock
FROM THE CAVEMAN wowing his followers by discovering fire, to the Popular Kid in the schoolyard wielding power over the wannabees, to the movie star hawking the latest insurance product on TV, humankind has always been a dance between the influencer and the influenced. In earlier decades, the professional version of this dynamic was orchestrated by mainstream media—television, radio, and print determined who became an influencer, and then controlled every step of the process.
Today, technology—especially social media—has democratized the way the influence process happens. On social media platforms, you can just pick up your phone or your Twitter feed and start gaining followers. If your postings resonate with those who’re following you, they’ll re-post and increase your followership and hence your influence. Today, kids as young as 8 or 9 years old are making six-figure incomes from YouTube by posting videos on TikTok and Instagram. Influencers are now such a part of the marketing landscape that some are actually members of the now-striking Screen Actors Guild, because they’re paid by Hollywood studios to appear online and tout upcoming movies.
In our research at COSMOS (https://cosmos.ualr.edu/), we study influence on social media platforms quite a lot, primarily for two reasons. First, we want to know who these influential actors are; and second, we want to know how their influence is resonating with the audience. Most of our work is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense, so it’s not like we’re focusing our attention on the Kardashians. We’re interested in security threats, and we want to know which influencers on social media platforms hold anti-U.S. or anti-West views. Is their information accurate or inaccurate? Are their misinformation or disinformation campaigns resonating?
But because younger social-media users have impressionable minds that can be quickly influenced, we also study the platforms for that demographic—TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, as well as more mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and blogs. We want to know how influence campaigns occur on these platforms. What are the key elements of these influence mechanisms?
Influence is usually regarded as an individual effort—you have one big media personality or celebrity who becomes very influential. Same with YouTube, you have a famous YouTuber, et cetera. But often when we look at the nuance of influence campaigns on social media, there’s more of a collective influence effort. Collective influence is essentially where several influencers are either recruited or have the same ideologies. They work together to further certain agendas or to advance or amplify certain types of narratives. So we study influence at both the individual level as well as the collective or community level.
In large-scale social processes like campaigns or social movements, there’s always a face of the movement. But there are also core mobilizers and foot soldiers, if you will, which are also called “peripheral units” in the network. The idea behind this theory is that each individual has a specific role and position in a network, and they perform their actions according to their roles and positions, such that the larger effort culminates into the goal or the aim of that endeavor, whether it’s a social movement or a campaign. So when many of the people you follow either retweet, re-share, or post the same or similar news items, this kind of collective effort has a higher chance of influencing your beliefs or behaviors than if you simply saw a post on the Twitter account of some famous influencer.
Of course, social media platforms are interested in having these influencers on their platforms because then they have a hold on all those “followers,” thereby retaining users and, in many cases, recruiting more users for the platforms. The question becomes, what about the ethics of such choices? Take the case of the new social media/shopping portal called Shein, a Chinese merchandise-and-apparel-driven platform. They invited many influencers in China and the Xinjiang region to tour the factories where these products were made. The influencers came back with very flattering, very rosy views that glorified China.
In Western news, however, we’ve seen that the Xinjiang region, and many other parts of China, have issues of marginalization of Uyghur communities. Those kinds of things weren’t mentioned by the influencers, perhaps indicating that the influencers themselves could be influenced. So while it’s good for these platforms to have influencers—it helps in marketing, it helps with their shareholders to have more users—issues like these need to be addressed. There have to be ethics associated with online influencers.
Speaking of ethics, we’ve all witnessed the continuing fallout of the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and the subsequent criminal charges against its founder. This hasn’t exactly enhanced the images of some of FTX’s prominent influencers, including football star Tom Brady and actor Matt Damon, but because so many of the details are unknown, it’s hard to say whether they were there just to make money from the crypto wave, or whether they themselves were also caught up in what the algorithms were suggesting. Collective influence might be the persuading factor behind their choices or their decisions.
This is why in our research we’ve been urging more transparency in social media platforms. We want to understand how algorithms are pushing certain types of content and how the content curating algorithms are influencing our behaviors. France, for one, is cracking down on the whole online influence business, so that if you’re making money by touting cryptocurrency, for example, you need to disclose that.
I strongly believe that influencers’ disclosing any financial conflict of interest would be better, and not just for the general population. There’s also research from the marketing community showing that followers who go by their influencers’ word appreciate that kind of candor. In some cases, it was also seen that the followers actually felt better about the influencers because they’d been forthcoming about their sponsorships or about their financial relations. In other words, being transparent gave the influencers even more influence—at least with the people who were already following them. For those still on the fence and not sure whether to follow or not, that information may not be convincing regarding an influencer’s support of any particular product or service.
WHILE THERE’S MUCH to discuss regarding the everyday give and take of online influence peddling, it’s also important to step back and take a broader view of this phenomenon as well. What we’re observing, especially in young people, is that this constant exposure to technology, to social media communication through the cyber platforms, is kind of “rewiring” our behavioral instincts to an extent that we increasingly want to either mimic the people we follow on these platforms, or learn from them and project our own “uniqueness” online for others to see.
Those 8- and 9-year-olds I mentioned earlier—they and many, many others, from pre-teens to teens to young adults, are absorbing the content from these platforms at such a high volume and velocity that it will be very, very critical to start studying these demographics so we can understand how our brains are changing and our behavior is evolving. I consider this a co-evolution of digital and communication platforms and human beings and our societies. We are so intricately and inextricably linked with these platforms that it’s dangerous not to understand where we’re heading.
The starting point for studying influence is to get data from these platforms. For example, if we want to determine if a particular person is more influential than others, we would want to extract how many followers this person has, what types of things this person is saying, and how many people agree and express their feelings emotionally online. We also want to know about those people who disagree with respect to the influencer. This is a complicated mathematical model that allows us to understand influence and even measure that influence on social media platforms.
In fact, my doctoral dissertation that I completed 15 years ago at Arizona State University with a distinguished recognition was about measuring influence on social media platforms like blogs. I developed a stochastic model to study the network structure of influencers and their content. For someone to be influential, they have to be authoritative, meaning people should listen to them. They—the influencers—should have the ability to articulate their thoughts eloquently, and they should offer help and support to the community. Consequently, people look up to them, agree with what they’re saying, and follow their advice. All of these influential gestures have been coded into this mathematical model, which ultimately spits out an “influencer score.”
Then some of our newer studies look at “influence dynamics,” because this is a temporal process; it doesn’t happen instantly, it builds over time. Every individual goes through several stages of the influence process. This concept comes from communication science, advertising, and marketing disciplines, where theories like the “diffusion of innovation” is widely applied. Let’s say you have a product to release into the market. You would find that there are innovators, early adopters; early majority; late majority; and laggards. The diffusion of innovation curve segments the audience into these different categories.
For an influence campaign, the audience can also be segmented into various similar groups. They could be part of the initiation, amplification, or sustainment group. The initiation group is comprised of individuals who are the innovators and early adopters of the influence campaign—they are primarily the initiators of the idea. Individuals who help expand the reach of the idea constitute the amplification group. Late majority and laggards, i.e., individuals who adopt the idea the last but are essential to continue the influence, constitute the sustainment group. This influence dynamic can be mathematically modeled, and that is particularly important to any entity—person or company—that wants to influence as many people as possible effectively. They would want to start by focusing on those who are easily influenceable and those who are almost on the border. Then they move on to the others who are still a little less approachable, and they start working to bring those people onto their side.
This dynamic also works on the flip side, by which I mean misinformation or adversarial influence campaigns. Using these models, decision-makers can identify individuals that are more vulnerable to such campaigns and conduct suitable interventions or develop policies to diffuse the influence campaigns.
For our work, we first identify the influencers, whether individual or collective. Then we assess the dynamics of the influence, and where that individual is in that influence campaign process. Having such a deeper understanding of the influence dynamics helps marketers, advertisers, and policymakers alike to react appropriately.
As I mentioned earlier, because of the nature of the grants that support our work, we’re especially interested in modeling influence campaigns that are of strategic importance to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). While it’s true that pop culture influencers are not the focus of these studies, there are newer efforts from the DOD to study positive influence campaigns. No longer are we just studying how our adversaries or enemies are using influence campaigns; the questions now are, how can we get our message out? And what makes it resonate with the audience?
We are all in the influence business these days.
Disclaimer: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organizations. The author gratefully acknowledges the support.
Dr. Nitin Agarwal has published 11 books and over 300 articles on social media and influence campaigns in top-tier peer-reviewed forums, including NATO’s Defense StratCom Journal, US Army University Press, Canadian Special Operation Forces Command’s Future Conflict journal, and Baltic Security, among others, with several best paper awards and nominations. He leads several projects on coordinated cyber influence campaigns with a combined funding of over $25 million from an array of US federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, DARPA, Department of State, and National Science Foundation. Dr. Agarwal is an AAoC fellow, ARA fellow, IARIA fellow, and IEEE senior member. He can be reached at email@example.com.