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After Chase Bank, what to know about digital wildfires

By Odanga Madung | May 10th 2016
Odanga Madung

Digital media activity is not restricted to online confines anymore. We are at a point where digital activity is driving significant offline action. This is our new reality.

The sensational manner in which Chase Bank went into receivership is still in Kenyans’ minds weeks after it happened. A unique element of Chase Bank’s collapse was the role of digital media.

Twitter (and the infamous Kenyans on Twitter — KOT) was so influential in this crisis that it gained serious mention from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) governor in his first press conference regarding the lender.

The World Economic Forum in 2014 highlighted the term ‘digital wildfires’, referring to this rapid spread of massive digital misinformation in online media as one of the main threats to society.

Double-edged sword

We now live in a ‘world on wi-fire’ in which hyperconnectivity could amplify humankind’s most primeval emotions on a large scale.

Kenya is ranked the third-most active country on Twitter in sub-Saharan Africa. However, our achievement seems to be a double-edged sword. Our deeply entrenched technological fabric happens to serve as an ideal setting for accelerating the probability of digital wildfires.

Individual reactions, especially those rooted in fear and panic, can quickly multiply and get out of hand. The Chase Bank case was a unique manifestation of this phenomenon at work.

Given the unique circumstances under which Chase Bank collapsed, there are a few things we need to understand about the nature of digital wildfires.

First, the motivation behind which a rumour begins to spread is important. The spread of rumours online is an act of goal-oriented communication, often motivated by a desire to find out if they are true.

Twitter research conducted in the aftermath of the Chase Bank fiasco shows a large number of people tweeting were simply trying to find out if what they were hearing from their friends was true.

Second, the unique situation at hand matters. Just as forests are especially vulnerable to fires in dry seasons, so do some situations make digital networks more susceptible to wildfires. In the case of Chase Bank, there was an information vacuum that made the situation snowball quickly.

The media, which was the second port of call for the distressed public, was caught up in time-consuming verification processes. This is where social media trumps all. The public does not hold itself to such lofty standards. They can easily brush away the responsibility of verification and get away with it.

As with most wildfires, the damage was done before any correction could be made. Tweets from the CBK and the media didn’t get nearly as much traction as those from regular accounts claiming to have information on the collapse.

Win over

Thirdly, the larger context of the situation needs to be taken into consideration. What happened before this point? What other external or secondary factors could exacerbate it?

In the case of Chase, two other banks had gone under in the past nine months. This was a major factor in how Kenyans reacted to rumours of a probable Chase Bank collapse. People simply don’t trust their banks as much as they used to.

Understand the bigger picture to adeptly deal with digital wildfires.

Lastly, understand the players and their roles. Understanding who the key propagators of information are, and trying to win them over to your side, is an important aspect in dealing with digital wildfires.

The role of the general masses in the Chase Bank crisis was perhaps one of the most important factors. Having digitally-attuned citizens means a large number of people get their news from digital platforms. However, this news does not necessarily come from traditional authorities like media or government.

On social media, almost anyone can come off as an authority, especially in circles in which they are already influential.

Digital wildfires can start at any moment. Research shows the Chase Bank crisis began with only two tweets.

Digital alertness must become the new cornerstone of digital communication for brands and organisations. Listen just as much, or even more, than you talk. However, digital platforms are a noisy place, so ensure you have the right tools to put out the next spark before it becomes a wildfire.

The writer is data science lead at Odipo Dev, a data science and social intelligence firm.

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