Why It’s Now Impossible to Control Information

Information is power. That maxim has always been true.

But in the past five years, social media has completely changed who can control information. For business and IT managers, it’s vital to understand this new reality. Sadly, most companies don’t grapple with how things have changed, and they continue to operate under outmoded assumptions.

The following three truths, illustrated by recent stories in the news, make this new reality concrete.

1. Every individual is a newspaper.

The Ukrainian government is battling rebelling pro-Russian separatists. Russian troops are amassed at the border between Russia and Ukraine. These are universally accepted facts.

However, there are two major points of controversy. First, the United States accused Russia (with satellite photo evidence) of firing on Ukraine government troops. Second, Ukraine media accused Russia of entering Ukraine to conduct missions inside the country.

Russia denied both these accusations.

Then something interesting happened. Pictures and posts by Russian soldiers started appearing on Instagram and other social media.

Russian soldier named Alexander Sotkin posted dozens of pictures of himself in an armored vehicle with the Russian deployment talking about using a “Buk,” which is both the name of the kind of missile launcher used to bring down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the name of a laptop. Also, the geo-tagging on some of his photos suggest the pictures were taken inside Ukraine.

Other similar social media posts by soldiers started appearing as well. Many said their social media accounts had been hacked.

Pro-Russian commentators said the social media posts were faked, planted and/or misunderstood.

Whether true or false, these events show that every in individual is a newspaper, capable of broadcasting both facts and falsehoods to the world. Sotkin’s Instagram posts gained a larger audience than The New York Times, Newsweek and CNN combined.

Remember that the next time you tell something to your employees. The belief that a companywide memo will remain within the company, for example, is the most naive and outdated belief any manager could have.

And that fact is important because …

2. Anything can end up in the court of public opinion.

Companies do business with each other, and they have always negotiated the terms of their interaction. For example, as part of its book-selling business, Amazon must negotiate deals with book publishers to determine, among other things, the price it will pay for the books.

After month four of a protracted and difficult negotiation with Hachette Book Group, Amazon turned the screws by halting pre-orders of some Hachette titles and delaying shipment on others. Hachette called them “sanctions.”

On Sunday, The New York Times published a two-page ad that featured a letter signed by 900 authors who are slamming Amazon for its negotiating tactics. (Many of these authors’ books were among those halted or delayed by Amazon.) The letter called on the public to send email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and it contained his email address.

In response to the early reports last week of the pending Sunday letter, Amazon sent an email on Saturday to authors who’ve written ebooks using the Kindle Direct Publishing service. In that email, Amazon explained the rationale for its negotiating tactics and goals (to drive down prices, which is better for consumers and literacy) and urged authors to send an email to Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch. Now, Pietsch is sending a reply to every person who sends him email at Amazon’s urging, making his case directly.

These emails are not about convincing CEOs. They’re publicity stunts engineered to sway public opinion.

The details are unimportant. What matters is that there’s no such thing as quiet, backroom business negotiations anymore. When companies can’t agree, they’re increasingly likely to go to the court of public opinion for arbitration. And when one side can sway the public, they’re likely to be persuasive to regulators and the courts, too.

3. Twitter is the world’s most important medium.

Twitter has slowly been creeping toward hyper-relevance and centrality as the world’s most important conveyer of information to the public. But some kind of invisible line was crossed last week when the Pentagon used Twitter to announced major news. Specifically, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby tweeted Friday morning that the United States had conducted an airstrike on militants in Iraq.

This wasn’t a follow-up to a Pentagon press briefing. The tweet was the announcement.

Note that the Pentagon also posted the same announcement on Facebook, but hardly anyone noticed. People generally don’t turn to Facebook for news—or share news—as much as they do on Twitter.

I predict that everything that is truly important will be announced on Twitter from now on.

The lesson here is that someday, you and your company are going to want to announce really important information. The way that information will spread, ideally, is through viral sharing. And viral sharing will depend on the influence of your Twitter followers.

That’s why, if your company does nothing else with social media, you must make sure you have a robust following of serious people who care about your industry: journalists, partners, industry watchers, government officials, super-fans, academics and others. The only way to achieve that is with daily, substantive, authentic, valuable posts.

In the past five years, the world of information has changed completely. And it’s important to your company and your career to make decisions based on this new reality.

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