Dr Becky Freeman is an early career research fellow at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney. Her primary research interests include tobacco control, obesity prevention, and how online and social media influence public health.
Corporations use social media to advertise products, engage with consumers, respond to reputational issues, and to define and position their brands. But could social media also be an effective way for corporations to reach and influence both their critics and supporters in hopes of maintaining favourable regulatory environments?
Twitter, the social media platform of choice for politicians, academics, advocates and journalists has been simultaneously cast as a meaningless echo chamber and as a medium powerful enough to topple governments. It’s true impact likely lies somewhere in between.
The for-profit sector has certainly noticed the impact these 140-character communications can impart. A quick scan shows the major global brands are well represented on Twitter. From McDonald’s to Apple to Nike, corporations are enthusiastically Tweeting to consumers.
But not all Tweets are aimed at consumers. I recently had a surprising promoted Tweet appear in my Twitter newsfeed. A promoted Tweet means the Twitter account holder paid to have it appear in the Twitter news feed of other, targeted users.
This was the Tweet:
Normally, I ignore promoted Tweets, but this one caught my eye as it was critiquing a book that had just been released that very day, Prof Marion Nestle’s, Soda Politics. I follow Professor Nestle on Twitter, as do 129,000 others, as her research and analysis of how food companies control what and how we eat is insightful, important and most crucially influential.
Nestle’s latest book, Soda Politics, which I have ordered but not yet read, is about how the soda (carbonated beverages) industry aggressively markets and so successfully sells a product that is one of the epidemiologically evidence-based determinants of global obesity. She also outlines proven strategies for advocates to counter the political protection Big Soda has been afforded. This includes regulatory changes like soda taxes, advertising bans, and sales controls. She is a clear threat to the profits of some major global brands.
I clicked on the FACTS Followers Twitter account, with its 3600 followers, and it is self-described as being “all about simple, science-based, and sometimes snarky information on food & nutrition. Anti-woo/fear-mongering/pseudoscience.” Nothing that really explains who or what this account represents.
I then clicked through to the article that was linked in the promoted Tweet. This took me to an article critiquing Nestle’s book on the Food Insight website, which is a creation of the, International Food Information Council Foundation [IFICF]. The article essentially argues that soda is part of a healthy diet, has been wrongly demonised, and that Nestle interprets research incorrectly.
I next looked to see how the IFICF website was funded and it came as no surprise to see that many familiar companies are supporting the site, including soda manufacturers Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Red Bull.
Essentially, Big Soda has paid for an article to be promoted in a targeted way on Twitter to counter a new book they fear will influence people like me. Paying for your Tweet to reach more users is obviously necessary when your number of followers pales in comparison to your most respected critic. No doubt the IFICF was hoping many people would be reached and perhaps opinions be shaped prior to actually reading Nestle’s book.
Many questions remain however: why did this promoted Tweet appear in my newsfeed? Were all of Marion Nestle’s followers targeted? Was it because my own Twitter profile includes an interest in junk food advertising? Is it because I also follow other junk food and drink brands for monitoring purposes?
Corporations using front groups and phony science to prevent legislators from taking action to protect public health over company profits is not new. Using social media to counter powerful public health messages is a new twist on this old practice. As soda regulations gain global momentum, I suspect this is only a first taste.
Dr Becky Freeman is an early career research fellow at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney. Her primary research interests include tobacco control, obesity prevention, and how online and social media influence public health. Follow her on Twitter @drbfreeman