Storm in a tea cup: the social brew

Cathryn Adams, Sky News Commercial Director

There’s never been a more exciting time to be in media. News is sent and received instantly and made available to people across every conceivable media platform at every second of the day. It’s live, exciting and the world’s politicians, public figures and brands are serving up a plethora of information and, some would say, entertainment all-day, every-day.

But, with the speed of live news and opinion comes responsibility. At Sky News, we take this responsibility very seriously, so much so that when things don’t go to plan, we act swiftly to rectify the situation and stop it happening again. That’s what a responsible media organisation does. But, despite the action and apologies that the media and its representatives provide, the outrage over a few unsavoury words or actions is becoming increasingly politicised by a small number of predominantly nameless, faceless social media accounts.

The storm brews

Following the August 5 airing of an interview with far-right figure Blair Cottrell, the Australian arm of US-based online activist group Sleeping Giants took to Twitter to drum up some outrage. Despite Sky News' responsible swift action, the trolls came out demanding advertisers withdraw from the platform.

Immediately after the interview was broadcast, Sky News management removed the content from the public sphere. After launching a review, Sky News implemented measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Within the space of just 24 hours Sky News had acted on its responsibility to its audience and its partners, yet the Sleeping Giants' campaign continues - more than a month later.

While cat videos, news, celebrity selfies and other harmless content lives on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook also host abhorrent accounts inciting violence, recruiting terrorists and publishing illegal content. Is it ironic, then, to have advertising boycotts driven on these same social media platforms decrying brand safety where there is undoubtedly more controversial (and illegal) content available than on any publisher media asset in Australia?

The reason for this is because these targeted social media campaigns aren't about 'funding hate', they're about stifling debate. When a media organisation admits it got it wrong, it’s used as ammunition to target more advertisers, send more tweets and start more petitions. In the case of Sky News, it's an attempt to censor the channel’s commentators, as one of the only places in mainstream media to give a voice to these opinions, left and right.

Fabricated outrage

I’m not going to cover the detailed events surrounding the Sky News interviews with Senator Leyjonhelm and Blair Cottrell. Suffice to say that the response from the mainstream media and trade press was an overly dramatic one and, in many instances, a factually inaccurate beat-up driven by trolls and politically aligned activists on social media. Even the Victorian Government succumbed to misinformation spread by Sleeping Giants, misrepresenting its reason why Sky News was banned from Melbourne City loop train stations. As the Minister admitted in a Sky News interview, it was not about anything broadcast on the network. Again, this was political.

So who are these activists?

Following the aggressive targeting of Sky News' advertisers on social channels, an analysis was conducted by social media intelligence firm Brandwatch. Far from Sleeping Giants' claim that it 'does not get involved in politics', an analysis of a large volume of data surrounding the accounts involved indicated that the Twitter accounts which targeted Sky News' partners featured 'Politics' as the most discussed topic. Further, the study found that:

  • 53% of all conversation came from a group of just 200 Twitter accounts
    • Of the top 200 users only 59 were identifiable as individual people (i.e., either using a real name, having an original image of a human, or at least contact details)
    • Over 70% of the most engaged users have an anonymous Twitter profile
  • The 10 Twitter profiles most engaged in the campaign contributed 4,500 engagements on Twitter over a period of 45 days – an average of 450 per ‘user’
  • Qantas was the most targeted brand partner during this period receiving 7,277 Tweets
  • The ‘most followed’ account which engaged in this political activism during the review period was GetUp

Let’s not even get into the revelation that one Sleeping Giants activist, Denise Shrivell, is in fact a former News Corp and Fairfax Media sales employee, who now earns her living helping advertisers determine where to spend their ad budgets. We hear News Corp isn’t high on the list.

Craig McPherson, Seven’s director of news and public affairs, summarised it well last Monday when he told The Australian’s Lilly Vitorovich, “It’s now been exposed that it is a very, very, very, very small number of people, not the huge number that they misleadingly took to advertisers to try and ­create something that just wasn’t real.”

So, what is the truth about the Sky News audience?

Sky News audiences were up a whopping 25% in the first half of 2018 and continue to break channel records every other week. Some might not like it, but there is a huge number of paying subscribers who certainly do.

August delivered record audience results for Sky News. Coverage of the Liberal leadership crisis drew audiences larger than any day in the channel’s history and across digital platforms there were more than 16 million views of video content. Advertisers aren't asked to agree with every opinion that surrounds their media buy - that would be impossible - but should remember that on Sky News they are reaching a large, and growing, audience.

Arm yourself with information

This isn’t the last time this will happen. While there are opinionated personalities in the media, there will be others lurking in the shadows, many under false aliases, with counter opinions. When brands succumb to ‘commercial terrorism’, driven by anonymous Twitter accounts with political agendas, they unwittingly become part of the same political agenda. I don’t know many brands who want to get into that territory.

Our role, as a media and advertising platform, is to ensure our brand and agency partners are well informed, as early as possible. We want to have a conversation with you and we want to share our side of the story. We want to arm you with the facts so that you can make informed and educated decisions. Most importantly, we want to ensure we continue to provide a platform for all sides of the national debate, providing viewers with content they are passionate about - even if they don't always agree with it.

And I’m always happy to have that discussion.

For more information on any of the above, please contact your MCN and Sky News representative on 02 9209 6300.