The Power of Social Media: A modern examination of the hypodermic needle/magic bullet theory

The hypodermic or magic bullet theory hypothesises that a media message can be shot directly into the brains of its audience, who then wholly accepts the message and was the founding work of Harold Laswell (1927) in response to examination of media and its affects utilised in the First World War.

This theory widely debunked from the 1940’s onwards by Paul Lazarsfeld amongst others, who claimed a two-step communications flow was more realistic, whereby messages were received and interpreted by opinion leaders.These opposing theories occurred at a time when main media was prevalent in the form of printed press, radio and television, and was utilised by governments and major organisations to transmit their message.
Watch video on Hypodermic Needle Model/Magic Bullet Theory:

Fast forward to the 21st century and is the hypodermic needle theory still invalid? This digital dinasour believes that with the emergence of social media as a force in mass communications it’s time for Laswell’s theory to be reconsidered.

In the following paper,”Rethinking the Bullet Theory in the Digital Age” you can read a study on how the magic bullet theory has been applied in modern society in light of the use of social media. In one example, authors Chinenye Nwabueze and Ebere Okonkwo given an example of how parents became aware of an online rumour which caused them to panic and pull their children out of school. This was completely incorrect but it is a good example of how the magic bullet/hypodermic needle theory can be applied to social media:

People can be seen to have simply accepted or reacted mindlessly, to a piece of information that was literally injected into their brains, this being the hypothesis of the “Magic Bullet Theory” or Hypodermic Needle theory leads to the conclusion maybe this theory’s time has come with the advent of mass social media, or at least a re-visitation.

Are organisations really committed to two-way dialogue through online/social media?

First of all, what is dialogue? Looking at various meanings in the dictionary, it is often described as a “two-way conversation between two or more people…”

So, what does dialogue mean in public relations practice and how has online media influenced this?
Reflecting on my own PR practice, all organisations that I have worked for, use online/social and digital media as a channel of communication towards their stakeholders.

They have a company website, have social media channels (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc) to post news and have an “Email us” account where stakeholders can email their queries and questions and they measure the interaction they have online with how many likes and shares they have received from a post, how many followers they have and if the followers are increasing or decreasing.

I see the above as closely aligned to scholars Kent & Taylors’ (1998, 2002) theory on dialogic communication who suggested that a dialogic approach to relationship building could be achieved online for organizations and their publics. In their work Kent & Taylor found that the online environment provides communication/PR practitioners an opportunity “to create dynamic and lasting relationships with publics”.

Follow the link to an interesting paper written by Agozzino, A. (2015). Dialogic Communication Through “Pinning”: An Analysis of Top 10 Most-Followed Organizations’ Pinterest Profiles. Public Relations Journal, 9(3). Available online:

In this paper, the author describes how Kent & Taylor identified five principles of strategic website design that organizations could implement to promote the dialogic communication approach to relationship building.

These principles include:
1. ease of interface
2. usefulness of information
3. conservation of visitors
4. generation of return visits
5. dialogic loop.

Aganozzi also goes into detail about the academic research that has considered the potential of the dialogic approach to relationship building via an organizations’ website.

The author states that much research has been done looking at a spectrum of industries, where researchers found that the organizations’ websites were employing several features of Kent & Taylors’ dialogic communication – that websites were easy to use, informative, and motivated users to stay on the site and to return. However, most of the researchers found that many of the websites they looked at lacked commitment to providing feedback through what Kent & Taylor describe as “the dialogic loop”, the fifth principle and meant they were missing the relationship building opportunities that an online environment could offer to organizations, and which is a key element of public relations practice.

Certainly, for the organizations that I have worked for, social media has not been a dynamic way to build relationships but rather something that had to be done to put communication out the stakeholders rather than have a real exchange in communication.

I think the fundamental issue is that there has been no real commitment by management or the culture of these companies, to really want to have a two-way communication. This would mean dedicated resources that were allowed to really engage in meaningful dialogue and conversation on behalf of the company/organization. The majority of companies/organizations want to control what is said by all of their stakeholders – including what employees and even the communications team say to the outside world and in committing to a real two-way dialogue, there is a risk that the conversation may deviate from company and corporate messages and positions and therefore cannot be truly controlled.

Instead, information is posted by the organization on all the social media channels it has. At no time is a two-way conversation between its stakeholders and the organization really the goal, rather, the amount of posts and likes and shares and followers seem to be the main goal of the exercise.

Instead, information is posted by the organisation on all the social media channels it has. At no time is a two-way conversation between its stakeholders and the organisation really the goal, rather, the amount of posts and likes and shares and followers seem to be the main goal of the exercise.

Has digital media encouraged the propagation of propaganda and is it sending us back to the past instead of into the future?

PR has been seen to have its roots in propaganda and in the early part of the 20th century, was often associated with pushing company products and political agendas. Since then, PR has become an established professional and academic discipline and has moved away from this association.

A century or more later, this digital dinosaur wonders if digital media however, is a tool that encourages the propagation of propaganda? One could argue that digital media encourages extreme views to promote various groups political agendas to another level.

Digital media has the capacity to deliver a large number of messages to a vast number of recipients within a very short time, which means messages to support a specific agenda can reach an unprecedented number of audiences, without editors or traditional gatekeepers’ intervention. Through the digital network, this capability is further compounded by “flow”.

Flow relates to the structure of social media platforms, which are set up to keep their audiences engaged. Content is linked and appears in relation to internet and social media searches, keeping the viewer immersed in the subject he or she is currently reading about. This leads to reinforcement of the message and little opportunity for the viewer to consider alternative perspectives.

So, what evidence is there of flow and pushing of propaganda or agendas on digital media? There are multiple examples of political agendas being orchestrated today, whether conspiracy theories such as Q Anon, the tweets of American President Donald Trump or the recent activism of the Black Lives Matter movement. What is evident is that digital media is the tool being used at the forefront of pushing these specific agendas to mass audiences, only to a hitherto unimaginable number.

See article on Forbes magazine on how social media has been used in the Black Lives Matter campaign:

Digital media platforms have become an essential vehicle for delivery of messages and ideas and an important weapon in the public relations arsenal of all that use it. With any great weapon it should be used carefully by organisations and politicians, and assessed wisely by the public, however this shows no sign of occurring, and ultimately has become a very powerful tool that can be wielded for good and bad.

I conclude that the use of social and digital media to push political agendas is in my view, turning back the clock in some ways. I draw parallels with the use of social media in pushing political or company agendas, with how PR first began and argue that social media is sending us back to the past rather than the future.

Has the role of the gatekeeper changed in the advent of social media?

As a PR professional, who has worked in the financial and energy sectors for large corporate companies for most of her career, I see part of my role as a gatekeeper of information. In my role, I select and shape news messages (Shoemaker and Reese, 1996; Shoemaker and Vos,2009) and exercise caution and discretion in terms of the news and information that should and shouldn’t be promoted on behalf of the company I work for.
I identify this as an application of gatekeeper theory, first proposed by social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1947, and then expanded upon by David Manning White in the 1950’s study who undertook a study of how editors selected which messages and news articles were published.

Journalists and editors are also gatekeepers today, being selective about what they want to write and what angle they want to position in their article. The graphic below shows that the news produced is then selected by a gatekeeper and only certain items of news is then disseminated to audiences.

Prior to social media, the gatekeeper was a key influencer in the type of news that was published and was one of the main influencers in society, able to set agendas, whether they be politically or socially driven.
However, I think that social media has really changed this influence and through online media channels, the number of gatekeepers has multiplied to untold numbers, who are not affiliated or connected to the particular organisation or news publishing outlet. This means they are independent gatekeepers who can comment, reshape articles, criticise, or write and publish opposing information published by organisations and traditional media online.

I conclude that in terms of PR, the traditional gatekeeper of news is still in existence but the power of news outlets and or corporate organisations has diminished in terms of the selecting and shaping messages disseminated to the masses and that organisations now need to consider the multitude of gatekeepers out in the digital sphere who also set agendas, shape messages and influence publics.

Speak out and be heard! How has Digital Social Media given publics a new voice and how does this affect PR?

In Chapter 6 of “Rethinking Public Relations (K. Moloney & C. McGrath, 3rd Edition) it states “The capacity of ordinary people to create, adapt and circulate communication has been raised by Digital Social Media (DSM) to unprecedented level”.

Whether you agree with this statement or not, what is certain is that digital and social media has allowed groups of people who would have never had a voice before, to speak out and have their opinions not only heard but exchanged, discussed and circulated. It has also given minority groups the opportunity and courage to express a view that is incongruent with the dominant view being expressed by dominant factions of society (government, authorities, big business, the church etc).

The spiral of silence theory developed by Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, can be applied to this extraordinary phenomenon that DSM has brought about. “Spiral of silence is the term referring to the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject.
People remain silent because:
1. Fear of isolation when the group or public realizes that the individual has a divergent opinion from the status quo.
2. Fear of reprisal or more extreme isolation, in the sense that voicing said opinion might lead to a negative consequence beyond that of mere isolation (loss of a job, status, etc.)”

Watch the Spiral of Silence Video:

Why are minority groups breaking the spiral of silence? The advent of online communities and the fact that they are to a certain degree “unseen” with a level of anonymity, has given those who would have been too fearful to speak out and otherwise stayed silent, an opportunity to connect and group together with likeminded individuals to exchange information, opinions, ideas etc. This has also shown them that they are not the minority but the majority.

In numbers there is strength and the opportunity to come together in large groups helps to lose the fear of speaking out about differing feelings, opinions and beliefs. Digital and social media therefore offers a huge platform and opportunity for minority opinion holders to speak out and be heard! There are literarily thousands of online communities to be found on line.

For PR departments and practitioners this has meant a much more heightened sensibility and awareness of your differing stakeholders and publics and that the dominant societal view may not necessarily be the one that you should take into primary consideration when planning PR pitches and campaigns. It has also meant that PR departments and practitioners can no longer be under the illusion that they can control the message and in fact that you really truly need to engage with your publics to build a relationship. Digital media can really be the door to a much more fruitful relationship with your publics if used not as somewhere to dump information but in which to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

“Ready and On Guard!” The challenges for PR practitioners in the wake of social media

Belonging to the age of Digital Dinosaurs, I still remember the days where there was no mobile phone, where I couldn’t be reached 24/7, and no internet at work to use, how did we communicate back then? With faxes, mail and with telephone calls, picking up the phone and talking to people.

Face to face meetings were also very important and this was all seen as an important role of building solid relationships with your stakeholders. These relationships were managed and for the most part, carried out during 9-5 working hours in a very structured and organized way. The PR practice that was carried out in the Corporate Communications teams that I worked for back in the day, was quite entrenched in Grunig’s Excellence theory, being very organised, very focused on two-way communication and focused on the organisation’s communications and its best practice.

Fast forward 20 years on and in some ways, PR practice within corporations that I have worked for, and have been employed by more recently, are still rooted in Excellence, however, a whole new dimension has been added – convergent, or social media, which has changed the dynamic, shape and speed of which corporations have to communicate and respond – particularly to an emerging crisis.

I agree with Grunig in his “paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation”, where he argues that digitalisation should be seen as a “strategic means of interacting with publics and bringing information from the environment into an organisational decision making”.
But how does this look when put into practice and what challenges do many PR professionals and teams face both in a personal and professional capacity? Do we really have time to make considered decisions if an online crisis hits an organisation?

Nearly all PR practitioners working for big corporations now need to be on guard 24/7. Such is the speed of social media to go viral means that a high level of vigilance is required in order to be ready for any communication issue or crisis at any time.

Around the clock monitoring of social platforms is required by social media teams to spot if there is a trend/conversation/activity emerging from stakeholders that needs a reaction/response from the company and to top it all off, you can’t wait to respond to something, it has to be done immediately, in real time, as otherwise it can spiral out of control very quickly, in the blink of an eye!

A few examples from my past: stakeholder protests against an infrastructure project and its construction in the local area. Local stakeholders were able to organise themselves literally overnight with no prior warning and to the company’s surprise, managed to gather the whole community of 500 people (including women and children and local mayor) onto the streets over a weekend, to block construction vehicles entering the construction site. Videos and interviews with the activists were quickly posted online and shared by local media. The site was deemed too dangerous for a PR person to go and talk to the protestors and so the only way the organisation could respond was online. This had to be carried out on a Saturday and Sunday, continuing late into the evening.

Another example of where the company was taken by surprise was when activist groups also formed a huge community online to “Say No” to this particular project, when a research platform was on the coast taking data and was spotted by one of the residents. The speed at which this all took place took the company and the PR department by surprise. What it showed was that not enough resources were dedicated to social media monitoring and to spotting when trends were emerging. It also meant that 24/7 monitoring of social media and analysis of activist conversations/comments to spot if any action was being planned.
So, does this mean the PR practitioner should be contacted any time of the day and night? Can you or should you, say no to a call if an event is spiralling out of control online late at night or in the early hours of the morning?

I think we all agree as PR professionals the word “No” to reacting to a crisis does not exist! Does this mean we have no private life any longer to segregate when we are at home and at work? Where is the line drawn between our private life and working life?

In conclusion, I think that convergent media has meant even more of a blurring of the lines between the private and professional lives of a PR professional. The ability for stakeholders to evoke mass communications actions that have very real impacts on companies can be done at any time, day and night, at a drop of the hat. If the PR professional and the team is not ready and on guard then a disaster will no doubt strike!

Fake news: Can stakeholders and companies really trust what they read on social media?

In my last blog this digital dinosaur mentioned the ease at which the internet, digital and social media a aka: “convergent media” allows anyone to search for information and how easy it is to post and publish any information at a drop of the hat.

You would think that all this information literally at our fingertips would have the potential to make us as a society more knowledgeable and informed. However, how can stakeholders distinguish between fake news and factual information that is impartial and not pushing a certain agenda?

Most people see news on their social media feeds and spend on average a mere 15 seconds on checking the source of the stories and many instead only read the headline!

The news that appears on such feeds is controlled by social media sites, and has to be liked to appear, so is this news that is really important for stakeholders to know, or are other members of society setting the agenda of what news reaches us because of the number of likes the article received?
With so little time spent on checking the facts and viability of the information, how can stakeholders be sure that the information presented is really impartial and factually correct? Can they really trust it? And how can companies be sure that the information they are publishing is being taken seriously, and seen on various digital channels, and is being taken on board in the way that they wish?

Has convergent media made us as society ever lazier, leading to the creation of mindless individuals who are unable to think for themselves unable to distinguish fact from fiction and form their own opinions based on factual research, rather than reading and taking on board the opinions and thoughts of others?

In fact, the issue of trust is a big one. Can you trust what you are reading? Is it factually correct or just false information? A team, led by Sinan Aral of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in the journal Science, “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,”

What is also concerning, is the power of social media to get people to act without thinking, resulting in a negative impact on reputation and company performance. For example, in 2016, case in point being a social media story attributed to Pepsi Co CEO Indra Nooyi denigrating Donald Trump’s supporters saying “they should take their business elsewhere” caused the company to lose 5.21% of its share price. This initially damaged Pepsi Cos reputation but had no substance and was in fact fake news

Luckily though there is some awareness beginning to emerge about whether you can trust the information on convergent media. In an internet survey carried out by the Centre for international governance innovation in 2019, on internet security and trust, they discovered that
– 75% reported social media companies as responsible for distrust on the internet
– 86% of respondents had fallen for fake new at least once
– Only 32% believe social media algorithms are unbiased

By the end of 2019 social media has 3.5 billion users worldwide and is still growing, though some western countries have stagnated for the main platforms there will still be growth for newer platforms such as TikTok. The increasing usage of these platforms to receive news will continue to enable the spread of fake news and propaganda, however as of April 2020 big platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to limit the spread of news that is considered fake, which is a double-edged sword, simultaneously minimising the damage, but thus becoming the decision maker on what is seen.

How does this effect PR?
Well I think PR has its work cut out in building trust with its stakeholders. This really comes down to the code of conduct and the transparency and authenticity in which a company communicates towards its stakeholders and is perceived. Public Relations departments and company management have to now work even harder to distinguish facts from the fiction on social media. This presents more of a challenge in so many ways. More about this in one of my next blogs.

Convergent media: Is this the end of the road for journalism?

Having recovered from the nervous breakdown which ensued in using WordPress for the very first time, to set up this blog, this digital dinosaur is back to talk about convergent media. What does this term mean and what has it got to do with social media, or new media or digital media and PR?

Convergent media is the name that some members of PR academia have given to what others term as social and digital media, but it is not a term that is used or known widely. Most companies and people today in general refer to social and digital media instead but that is not an accurate description.
Convergent media means it is networked and digital. So, for example, convergent media is digital in terms of the digital software, tools and platforms used i.e. the web, YouTube, Facebook, apps, smart phones, videos, graphics etc and that it allows the sender and receiver to be networked (linked together).

Here is a useful video on media convergence:

As a public relations practitioner, even as a digital dinosaur I regularly use convergent media, and this has made me in a way more self-sufficient when needing an article published. In fact, my life is a whole lot easier as I don’t need to spend as much time on traditional media relations, instead using convergent media channels instead. This is particularly helpful when I have many countries as part of my responsibilities in the company I work for, to provide PR support for but have no real resource to dedicate to this. So social media is one of the primary communications tools that is best to use.

But what is it that makes convergent media so useful? What characteristics describe the term convergent media? Here are some characteristics that describe the term sometimes used in academia:
Firstly, convergent media makes searching for information easy and fast. In the bat of an eyelid, I can use the internet to do my research eg using google, look at articles posted online by traditional media, looking at videos on YouTube, company websites, Linkedin, statistics etc. Then I may replicate some of this research in an article that I wish to write. This all happens whilst I sit at my computer or even on my phone and without much time needed to do much leg work such as speaking to other people, or departments, laboriously sifting through monitoring reports, or interviewing people etc.

When it comes to posting my article, the world is my oyster as the reach of converged media is far and wide. Previously In the “olden days” if I was intending to post my article in a print magazine, I would have to have a good relationship with the journalist of the particular newspaper or magazine I wanted to publish in and also needed to convince them to write a story. Now, I can write the article myself and if I post my article on converged media, LinkedIn for example, or twitter, or Facebook, my article will be seen not only by all my journalist contacts but many other stakeholders too and they will see it instantly. This means, I don’t have to think about selection, or spend time “selling” my article and in terms of the timing, I can post at any time. The downside to this however, is that there is no real clarity of publics on convergent media and so my publication is not specifically targeted at any particular stakeholder group or public other than my own contacts and my contacts own networks.

If I were publishing my article in a hard copy newspaper or magazine, this would require a lot more planning and thought in terms of selecting the right medium and when and where to publish. In addition, my article would only be in circulation for one day or one week or one month. On LinkedIn for example my article has longevity and if my article is liked and shared, it would attract an increased number of readers very quickly. In addition, as it is on the internet, it has a long shelf life and would pop up on internet searches and so never be obsolete.
The other benefit is that I do not need to be particularly skilled or have a journalistic background to write and get an article published. Never has it been easier to research, write and publish an article at a drop of a hat!

So, in my view, convergent media has definitely changed, not only in the way we publish information and news as PRs, but it has opened the floodgates for anyone at anytime and anywhere to become a journalist and publish news at the push of a button. More thoughts on how this has impacted our media and news landscape in my next blog…