GameStop’s Takeaway for PR Pros: Watch Those Online Factions

Last week, GameStop shares surged after the WallStreetBets subreddit shared research on Melvin Capital’s short and then coordinated purchases to drive up the stock price. There’s at least one takeaway for communication professionals: The situation highlights the internet's foundational transformation and a shift in who has the power to influence what mainstream consumers see, hear and believe.

WallStreetBets is a faction. It's a highly motivated, hyperactive online group. Groups use the internet and its mechanics to find and coordinate action with likeminded people. In a typical scenario, if a faction drives 1 percent of an online conversation around a topic, it is in control of setting the narrative agenda. WallStreetBets was driving 30 percent of the conversation around GameStop.

The swift, significant impact of the WallStreetBets subreddit is a clear indicator that protecting a company’s integrity requires it to consider the potential influence of a faction. Here are considerations to help ensure you understand how to interact with factions.

Go Beyond the Mainstream to Understand Who & Why

There is a sense among some that what’s going on with WallStreetBets is nefarious—that the users in this subreddit are gaming the system. This is inaccurate.

In fact, it’s a group of smart people who understand market dynamics. They identified an opportunity and shared that information, sourcing the wisdom of the crowd. Any investment firm could have, and should have, done what WallStreetBets did. They just never looked into it. It isn’t market manipulation; it’s just how today’s online information ecosystem works.

It also points to a clear misstep—many involved in last week's incident reacted to an unfolding situation, not what led to it. As the internet becomes increasingly complex, communicators must immerse themselves in all platforms, from subreddits to fringe channels. This will help communicators get an accurate understanding of what motivates factions; how they interact with each other. In addition, communicators must know how to spot subreddit cues. These indicate their activity is speeding up on a topic, issue, event...or even a brand.

Look for Cues in Content, Not Volume

Historically, communicators relied on increases in volume of shares or likes to tip them off to activity, conversations or other important topics. But with so many platforms and factions, those metrics often are deceiving. Rather than relying on the amount of content, focus on context. What are they sharing? Which group(s) are sharing it and why?

For example, in the GameStop scenario, members of the subreddit were established users on the larger platform. They were sharing screenshots of their portfolios and investments and engaging with accurate information. These indicate you are dealing with real people operating in an authentic way. Alternatively, if the subreddit was flooded with walls of text and pictures from new accounts, those are red flags signaling suspicious activity.

Understanding the nuance between different types of engagement is important. It will help brands proactively triage and decide if, when, or how to interact with these groups.

See the Bigger Picture

Simply put, brands can’t make smart decisions without complete information. While the internet's vastness complicates gaining a total understanding of a situation, paying attention to online factions, their activity and what may be motivating them gives brand communicators the power to gain insight into adversaries—and help win the influence of allies.

Ryan Fox is CIO of Yonder