The plan seemed simple enough: The City of Minneapolis was going to enlist the help of several key community influencers with the hopes of handling misinformation on social media and easing possible tensions as the murder trial that sparked a racial reckoning worldwide gets under way. And for that, the city would pay them each $2,000.
With jury selection set to start Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer facing murder charges in the death of George Floyd, city officials, nervous about the spread of misinformation that could lead to uprisings and violence, hoped to employ the power and reach of social media as a best defense.
The community response was swift – and the retraction came as fast as the criticism.
Minneapolis’ strategy was “a terrible execution” of a good idea, said Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California’s digital social media program.
“I agree with the premise, their idea is absolutely correct because false information spreads very quickly, especially in the digital world, and inflammatory information spreads even faster than the sedate boring truth,” North said. “But, Minneapolis did it in a way that makes it look like propaganda.”
Andrea Jenkins, a Minneapolis council member whose ward is where Floyd was killed, believes in the reach and role of social media, while acknowledging using the term “social media influencers” was “a poor choice of words.”
“It was never about disseminating any propaganda,” Jenkins said. “It is a reality that social media is a dominant part of our society, so it’s not really clear to me why the city shouldn’t be communicating in this manner.”
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This debate over using technology comes as Minneapolis is feverishly taking precautions against potential uprisings around the trial. Chauvin has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Opening arguments in the closely-watched trial are set to begin March 29.
Floyd, who was Black, was killed May 25 after Chauvin, who’s white, was seen on a widely-circulated smartphone video pinning his knee against a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin and three other officers seen in the still inescapable video on social media were fired.
The incident sparked global unrest against racial inequities and police brutality.
The protests, conversations and calls for making authorities more accountable through various social media platforms because of Floyd’s death, reignited the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, into a worldwide call for justice. As a result, the organization was nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Minneapolis’ social media plan
Last week, the Minneapolis City Council had approved nearly $1.2 million in funding with several community organizations throughout the trials as part of its Joint Information System program created after the outrage and destruction over Floyd’s death.
The plan included hiring six “influencers” from the Black, Somali/East African, Native American, Hmong and Hispanic communities who have a “large social media presence.” The influencers would share “city generated and approved messages,” on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts about road and building closures, as well as dismissing any misinformation about the trial.
And each influencer would have been paid $2,000 under the plan, Minneapolis officials said.
“Our recommendations were to seek out additional ways to get that type of information to all residents,” said the email Minneapolis city officials sent to its elected leaders last Sunday. “We have also heard from our communities that if we ask them to assist with sharing information, we should honor their work and compensate them.”
But North, the USC professor, said the Minneapolis influencers, who she believes are more like community leaders and liaisons, shouldn’t have sought payment for their services. She said they aren’t social media influencers similar to Jake and Logan Paul and host of others who make a living off shilling brands.
North said what these “influencers” may all have in common are what she calls “The 3 R’s: Reach, Resonance, and Relevance.” She describes reach as a person with an ability to “reach out to a targeted audience and demographic;” Resonance as “a way to persuasive enough with their thoughts and opinions that can resonate, otherwise why bother.”
And, relevance, as “someone who is very familiar with the topic that’s timely.”
Also, North said Minneapolis officials also wanted to get out information to as many as people as possible from different backgrounds who may not get their information from traditional news sources.
“But when you pay somebody to do it, you automatically raise suspicion about the viability and authenticity of the information,” she said.
The impact of social media
For more than a decade, technology and social media in particular has played a monumental role from the Arab Spring protests, the Occupy Wall Street, the aforementioned Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo movement. Add recent uprisings in China and Lebanon, and other social movements around the world, there appears to be no end in sight.
Domestically, about 23% of adult social media users in the United States said they changed their views about a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media in the past year, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July 2020.
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And, seeing something on social media could lead to both positive and negative impacts, North said. For example, she said as social media was used to organize mass protests and demonstrations following Floyd’s death, the medium was also likely used to plan the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol two months ago.
“What most of us don’t see is that last stage of organizing and it’s happening on social media and often hidden away on anonymous and encrypted platforms,” North said. “This is so powerful enough as an emerging trend we’re not moving away from.”
And Minneapolis was aiming to harness that power. However, with being so keen on having some degree of control of the public conversation, the city started losing that control by hiring “influencers,” said Saif Shahin, an assistant professor at American University. Shahin said takes he the city officials’ reasoning at face value, the perception still makes them look bad.
“It’s a very delicate situation, and the very fact that they were trying to hire influencers – that word itself is loaded – implies they were trying to influence public sentiment,” said Shahin, who focuses on the relationship between social media and politics. “The fact that they decided to do this backfired, and that’s the exact opposite of what they wanted.”
For Jenkins, she said, it’s just simply a matter of getting the truth out. Her concerns about the spread of false information also stem from an incident last August that led to unrest in downtown Minneapolis that was sparked by rumors on social media that police had killed a man who was a suspect in a homicide. He had actually fatally shot himself to apparently avoid police arresting him.
Theincidentlead to widespread looting in the area.
“There is a huge distrust of the city, of the police, I’m not denying that and people are rightfully questioning every move,” Jenkins said. “However, if we want to keep our city safe, we need everybody to be included in that process.”
How Minneapolis will use social media
Jenkins and city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie both said Wednesday the city will continue to use social media to share important information with residents and neighborhood and community partners during the trials of Chauvin and Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, the three other officers also charged in Floyd’s death. The trio are scheduled to go to trial together in August.
The city officials also say they will continue holding weekly media briefings that are livestreamed online and on the city’s official Facebook page about how its preparing for the Chauvin trial.
Additionally, McKenzie said that the city is launching a website featuring public safety and community resources that will have translated content and will update it as they get community feedback and questions.