Exploring the effectiveness of social media – Part 3

This is the third addition in the ‘Exploring the effectiveness of social media’ series, which is reporting current research I am doing with Dr Louisa Connors, which seeks to understand how best to use social media to advance an awareness and understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). We will be discussing some of this work at the The Second International Conference of Modern Monetary Theory (New York, September 28-30), that is, later this week. There is no doubt that social media (among other things) has played a major role in building a non-academic audience for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). But it is not yet clear to me that social media users who seek to advocate for MMT have fully understood the media they are using. I see counterproductive exercises regularly on Twitter, for example. There is a clear literature on effective use of social media and there is also a long literature on how to frame arguments to be persuasive. Calling someone on Twitter who disagrees with you a ‘fxxkwit’ or telling them they haven’t read the literature is probably not the best way to exploit what is a power tool for advancing our cause. This blog post extends the discussion about the strategic use of social media.

Background blog posts to date:

Here is a list of relevant blog posts that can be considered background to this current series:

1. Framing Modern Monetary Theory (December 5, 2013).

2. The role of literary fiction in perpetuating neo-liberal economic myths – Part 1 (September 11, 2017).

3. The role of literary fiction in perpetuating neo-liberal economic myths – Part 2 (September 12, 2017).

4. The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism (June 19, 2018).

5. Exploring the effectiveness of social media (September 5, 2018).

6. Exploring the effectiveness of social media – Part 2 (September 24, 2018).

Our first refereed journal article together in this project (many more to come) came out last year in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics – Framing Modern Monetary Theory (June 14, 2017).

That literature makes it clear that the way we frame our arguments and the language and vocabularies that we deploy is highly significant in whether our views are accepted or not in the public discourse.

But there is more than that to worry about.

Further insights from research into social media

There was an interesting article in the Journal of Commuication last year (see full citation below) that examined how “generic frames influence what news people share on Facebook and Twitter”.

[Reference: Valenzuela, S., Piña, M. and Josefina Ramírez, J. (2017) ‘Behavioral Effects of Framing on Social Media Users: How Conflict, Economic, Human Interest, and Morality Frames Drive News Sharing’, Journal of Communication, Volume 67, Issue 5, 1 October 2017, Pages 803-826.]

The article considered three routes: “emotions, motivations, and psychological engagement”.

The motivation for the study was that:

… professional news sites are increasingly dependent upon referrals from social media … In June 2015, Facebook surpassed Google as the main traffic driver for the 400 publisher sites …

News sharing on social media not only affects the media industry; it also has important democratic consequences …

The study “on one of the most popular theories of news content effects-framing-especially work on affective and behavioral consequences of framing”.

There is a strong literature now on this topic, although not much on the “behavioral consequences of framing effects”.

Their research topic thus bears on question posed by all bloggers and other social media publishers – how do we design and present our content to enhance its capacity to be shared on various social media platforms?

What drives content sharing on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc?

These are questions that occupy the minds of mainstream media mastheads and casual bloggers and all those in between.

The extant literature cites a number of standard factors that promote news sharing that span content and psychology.

In particular, a focus on the content presented is significant.

And it is here that frames are important.

In this context, the authors define a frame to be:

… the dominant set of aspects and considerations emphasized by a news story, independent of the story’s specific topic … framing implies that news content is constructed through particular features that provide clues about the interpretation of the text and the news event itself, suggesting certain attributes, judgments, and decisions … These features include a wide array of presentation elements, such as the presence (or absence) of specific keywords, phrases, stereotypes, images, news sources, metaphors, exemplars, and quotations …

Generic frames used in the study include:

1. Conflict – “between individuals, groups, or institutions as a means of capturing audience interest”.

2. Economic consequences – “reports an event, problem, or issue in terms of the consequences it will have economically on an individual, group, institution, region, or country”.

3. Human interest – “brings a human face or an emotional angle to the presentation of an event, issue, or problem … refers to an effort to personalize the news, dramatize or ’emotionalize’ the news, in order to capture and retain audience interest”.

4. Morality – “context of values, moral prescriptions, normative messages, and religious or cultural tenets”.

These frames work differently on our cognition and interest and the question is which ones are more influential in determining how content is shared and spread through social media networks.

The study is thus important for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) activists who seeks to ‘spread the word’. How, exactly, does one spread it and be successful.

The extant research literature has found that the ‘morality frame’ is powerful and “mobilize people into action”.

Content that matches the values of the audience generally resonate, whereas, say economic consequence frames tend to demotivate arousal.

The study differentiated between Facebook (which requires a sense of symmetry with users – one has to be approved) and Twitter (which allows “asymmmetrical connections”).

I won’t go into the methodology (standard) and the dataset. You can read that up if you can get access to the article via your library.

The main results, after examining 37,843 journalistic articles, were:

1. News sharing is higher on Facebook than Twitter, which is just a scale issue (number of users).

2. “sharing in Facebook is significantly more concentrated on a relatively fewer number of articles than on Twitter”.

3. In terms of generic frames, “the most prevalent ones are human interest (44% of the total sample) and conflict (33%). Less common is the morality frame (22%), while economic consequences is the least prevalent of all (16%). Interestingly, only 29% of articles do not employ any of the measured generic frames, whereas 40% used one, 22% used two, and less than 10% used three or all four frames.”

4. After controlling for a number of factors, they found that “the presence of conflict reduces the probabilities that the article will be shared.”

5. “news that are framed as a conflict are shared 45% (Facebook) and 17% (Twitter) less than news without the conflict frame … This is quite a substantial effect …”

6. Followup interviews revealed that people are “conflict-avoidant” so while they might be enticed to click on such an article they will not retweet or share it because they don’t wish to be seen within their social network as being attracted to conflictual content.

7. “The presence of an economic frame does not make a statistically significant difference on Twitter, but it does matter on Facebook, for stories with this frame receive 0.62 times as many shares on this platform as articles without it”. So pushing economic consequences is not necessarily a good strategy.

8. Why? “Facebook users are perceived as less cognitively skilled” which turns them off ‘”technical or abstract interpretation of events”.

9. “the human interest frame is not a significant predictor of news sharing … but there is still a possibility that a human interest angle impacts news sharing when it triggers emotional arousal.”

10. “adopting a morality frame increases the likelihood of sharing the article on both Facebook and Twitter quite substantially. The statistical analysis suggests that news with a morality frame is shared on Facebook 75% more often than news without a morality frame”.

11. There is “a strong-but not perfect-correlation between Facebook and Twitter shares” and the “only sizeable difference lies in the economic frame, which is a negative predictor of Facebook shares only”.

The task of activists then is to come to terms with results such as this to fully understand what might be driving them.

While standard news outlets downplay the use of the ‘morality frame’ it turns out that it is a strong predictor of sharing content on both Twitter and Facebook.

The study found that the typical “hard news” approaches to content production (conflict and economic frames) “reduce rather dramatically the number of shares of news stories, especially on Facebook.”

It seems, then, that Twitter might be a more useful forum to promote the economic aspects of MMT and promote more general emotional/morality aspects (prosperity, equity, etc) on Facebook (and Twitter).

The literature (including the study cited) suggest that the generic frames work through:

1. Emotional arousal is a major reason news content gets shared.

2. The Morality and Human interest frames are particularly good at achieving that arousal.

3. Concepts of social status and social harmony are strong motivations for those sharing content and these militate against conflict frames.

4. The capacity to have a psychological involvement (“attention, recall and comprehension”) in content is important in whether it gets shared. Economic frames militate against that sort of involvement.

In terms of that finding in the literature, activists have to work out ways to engage our psychological capacities while still leading readers to economics content.

That is the challenge.

And this leads us to consider the concepts of target domains and source domains in the use of metaphors.

Getting smart with social media

In George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live by, published in 1980, we are introduced to the concept of a source and target domain, which are intrinsic to so-called metaphor theory.

The latter became popular from the early 1970s onward.

When we think about things or express views about things we map a source domain into a target domain.

While this terminology was introduced by Lakoff and Johnson, the idea was first enunciated in the 1936 publication by British poet I.A. Richards – The Philosophy of Rhetoric – which considered the metaphor as a key part of improving comprehension in English.

His book was really a study in the way in which “words work” to impart meaning.

For I.A. Richards, the “New Rhetoric” was much more than the “use of evidence” in the act of persuasion.

He considered the metaphor to be a process where we consider (think and feel) about things in relation to other things.

He wrote:

But we all live, and speak, only through our eye for resemblances … As individuals we gain our command of metaphor just as we learn whatever else makes us distinctively human.It is all imparted to us from others, with and through the language we learn, language which is utterly unable to aid us except through the command of metaphor which it gives.

In other words as we develop language we begin innately to relate to our reality through the use of metaphor.

In his analysis he considered the metaphor to have two components which interact semantically (Source):

1. Tenor – the idea, “the concept, object or person meant”.

2. Vehicle – is “the image that carries the weight of the comparison”.

We can think of the Tenor as the subject whose characteristics are borrowed from the vehicle.

As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) wrote:

The essence of a metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of things in terms of another.

In the famous Shakespeare monologue (Source):

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …

The ‘world’ is the tenor and the ‘stage’ is the vehicle.

In cognitive linguistics, Lakoff and Johnson renamed these concepts as the target and the source domains:

In a metaphor; there are two domains: the target domain, which is constituted by the immediate subject matter, and the source domain, in which important metaphorical reasoning takes place and that provides the source concepts used in that reasoning. Metaphorical language has literal meaning in the source domain. In addition, a metaphoric mapping is multiple, that is, two or more elements are mapped to two or more other elements. Image-schema structure is preserved in the mapping-interiors of containers map to interiors, exteriors map to exteriors; sources of motion to sources, goals to goals, and so on.

So when Lakoff and Johnson discuss the concept of a metaphor they are seeing it as a “cognitive process” where:

… we typically conceptualize the nonphysical in terms of the physical – that is, we conceptualize the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated.

Karen Sullivan writes in her 2013 book – Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language – that this ‘cognitive process’:

… allows one domain of experience, the target domain, to be reasoned about in terms of another, the source domain. The target domain is usually an abstract concept such as LIFE, whereas the source domain is typically a more concrete concept, such as a day.

The reference to LIFE and DAY is in the context of a metaphor such as the old man is in the “sunset of his life”.

In this case, the metaphor “allows us to export conceptual structure about the more concrete domain to the more abstract target domain … Conceptualizing LIFE as a DAY allows us to map the various structures comprising a DAY onto aspects of a LIFE … BIRTH as the DAWN, OLD AGE as the EVENING …”

These mapping “allow us to make sense of our lives, understand our stage of life, and appreciate that stage ….”

It is the primary way we try to make sense of the world. So the metaphorical process extends well beyond the mere use of words (language).

It constitutes a way of reasoning about the world and ourselves.

The point is that in crafting a strategic advocacy we need to understand how these domains work and how to trigger desirable frames and undermine frames that work against our interests (agenda).

The Conceptual Metaphor Home page provides a massive reference list, which can be used by cognitive science researchers.

It is a good idea for activists to become familiar with the source and target domains that George Lakoff and others have developed.

This will serve two purposes:

1. Allow the identification of the way the opposition uses language and metaphors to trigger responses from the public that advance their agendas. We considered that aspect in our JPKE paper cited in Part 2.

2. Allow a strategic assembly of appropriate metaphors (source and target) to structure a reality that will enhance the capacity to penetrate the public debate and steer opinion towards accepting MMT and a progressive value system that can sit on top of the MMT lens.

Framing in social media

The FrameWorks Institute produced a document in 2015 – Framing in Social Media: Diffusing frame elements in micro-messaging contexts – which considers how “communicators might incorporate the Core Story’s themes and tested frame elements into an organizational Twitter feed”.

A ‘core story’ is a fancy term that marketing uses to describe the ‘mission’ of an organisation or whatever.

They juxtapose what they call a “Frame Element”, which in terms of the discussion above is really a ‘target’ domain – in this case, “Solutions” to some aspect that the organisation might be offering or pursuing.

They say that the best use of Twitter is to “lure a reader to click on the link … to drive readers to content” through the practice of “infusing tested frame elements into these headlines” which “establishes the lens through which readers will view what they read when they get there.”

So the process is:

1. State a “frame element” – such as:

Human Potential: this is essential to maximizing the possible contributions of learners.

2. Publish a Tweet to lure the reader to further content – which also structures the way they approach the content prior to even getting to it:

Today’s post: Bringing out children’s talents today – because we’ll need them tomorrow: http://samplelink #sclchat

The organisation might be proposing reforms to assessment or policies to enhance equity or reduce ethnic disparities. The ‘sample link’ would take the reader to the relevant material.

But the reader would already be conditioned to think they were going to be accessing material that will tell them how to enhance the talents of children now which will benefit the future.

The cited publication provides many examples.

We have been working on a schema for Twitter use, which exploits the characteristics of Twitter to advance desirable target domains via appropriate source domains.

We will talk about this in more detail in New York at the MMT Conference later this week.

For example:

Frame (Target domain) Expanded metaphor Good to raise awareness about: Sample MMT Tweet
Well-being Well-being Is Wealth Fiscal deficits Government deficits add to household wealth, See Report at http://samplelink #GovernmentDeficit #PrivateWealth
Some problem Trying To Solve A Problem Is Looking For Solution In The Landscape Stimulating new economic thinking. Understanding MMT moves us nearer to solutions to our economic future? see Prosperity Roadmap http://samplelink #MMT #FutureProsperity
Creation is cultivation We need to nurture and invest now so we can reap benefits in the future Education, aged care. Planting seeds for the future – invest in public infrastructure now and reap a prosperous future – this Report tells how – http://samplelink #MMT #FutureProsperity #publicinvestment
Coherent Is Whole A unified theory is more plausible Education and changing social awareness Are you missing a piece of the puzzle? Learn MMT – a unified theory – this Report will help – http://samplelink #MMT #MMTEducation #puzzlesolution


The series so far has identified essential elements for a framing strategy.

1. The mission (big picture) has to be clearly defined – what is the narrative that we want to offer.

This has to be a positive vision rather than attacking the status quo. Its construction allows the status quo that we wish to undermine to be shown in a negative relief anyway.

2. We also have to ensure we understand what the ‘public’ we are seeking to persuade is. What metaphorical concepts are dominant in ‘their’ space.

What factors motivate these groups?

3. Develop new frames to define some new frame elements that will advance our arguments and speak directly to the cognitive processes which are in play and through which people relate (in our case) to the abstract thing they call the ‘economy’.

In this vein we have to promote ideas such as the ‘Economy is Us’, the ‘Economy is for Us’, we ‘Control the Economy’, etc to disabuse the target group of the neoliberal notion that the economy is separate from us and that we have to sacrifice to ensure the economy stays healthy.

Breaking the metaphorical structure that relates the economy as a being that can be sick, for example, is really important.

4. Understanding the different characteristics of social media – how it works, what works, etc to ensure we are implementing an effective communications strategy.

That is the challenge.

More next time.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Just as a point of information, I am mentioning a book on metaphor that I came across many years ago. It is Roger White’s The Structure of Metaphor (2002). It is a philosophical study. You may or may not find it useful for your project. I remember it as being somewhat technical in its approach.

  2. When I went to the Conceptual Metaphor Home page, I was shown only three references, all of which I was familiar with. It is not a broad list, which I found quite limiting.

  3. I would use the phrase “alternative economic thinking”, or the like, rather than “new economic thinking” as that has resonance with the web site of the same name.

  4. What you have to do is (before too long) show how the ideological principles work successfully in practice so that a population is convinced not just by the sophistication of the argument; it needs to be felt by experience as much as its principles appeal.

    The practicality is the hardest to achieve because there are always conflicting goals to be achieved with the same limited range of resources. What makes this even more difficult is the desire (demand) of humanity for immediate satisfaction from these resources.

    That is why we have over time successfully developed a consumer society, with all its inequalities and subversiveness, especially in a capitalistic framework.

    The principles of MMT are entirely laudable, but almost impossible to achieve without a lengthy and appealing agenda to take us beyond the confines of our industrial and (increasingly) services era.

    There are many who would gamble that voters’ notoriously flexible attitude to change will defeat MMT’s more rigidly fragile principles, especially as it tilts off the political perpendicular.

  5. Interesting again…

    Thinking about my own use of Facebook – I am very reluctant to share with my small but reasonably diverse group of friends anything too ‘conflictual’ – I’ll read it myself but I won’t share it – as I am reluctant to be too strident with my opinions as no-one likes a sanctimonious ideologue. Things framed in a more positive manner about the issues I care about, yes, those I will share. If I feel they give my more conservative friends a gentle intro into my way of thinking without alienating them entirely.

    The Job Guarantee seems to me to one of MMT’s key ways of winning hearts and minds. People attracted to Trump or Slavini’s populism don’t like the idea of “getting something for nothing” – but I have yet to meet a conservative friend who when pressed doesn’t agree with me when I say “if there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around in the private sector, there’s a recession and no one’s hiring, isn’t it better for the government to give people a job at a minimum decent living wage than have them wallow in boredom, alcoholism and develop bad habits? Isn’t it usually better to get up in the morning, get dressed and go somewhere and do something that contributes to the community?” And 9 times out of 10, if they aren’t trained in economics and worry about the inefficiency of the state at everything, they will agree in principle.

    I see Jordan Peterson’s ‘frame’ of ‘getting your own house in order’ and personal responsibility is having a lot of traction on the alt-right whether we like it or not. Well the job guarantee demands some personal responsibility – which I support – and allows us to frame MMT as something different from “something for nothing welfarism”. It’s definitely a ‘in’ for the as yet unconverted.

  6. When a new scientific theory emerges, it stands or falls on its ability to make better sense of a portion of reality than prior theories. The proponents of the new theory don’t talk endlessly about it but rather use it, apply it, to yield a more accurate or more complete description of certain phenomena. Accordingly, proponents of MMT should focus not on talking about MMT per se, but on using it relentlessly to explain, far better than any other theory, the tragic economic story of our lives–the post-WWII boom, the unraveling of that boom since the early 1970s, the culmination of that unraveling in the Great Recession, and the tepid and tenuous quasi-recovery we’re currently living in. Once that explanation sinks in, MMT would gain acceptance not merely as a theory but, much more importantly, as common sense.

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