Laura Petrolino

Creating False Idols: The Responsibility of Social Proof

By: Laura Petrolino | November 18, 2019 | 
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Creating False Idols: The Responsibility of Social ProofYears ago, I had an actor friend complain about the rising trend of  #TwitterCasting.

The practice of casting directors, directors, and producers who use “social proof” based on the size of an actor’s Twitter following as a qualification for casting them.

A qualification that might usurp the actual skill level and best fit of the group of auditioning actors.

We see the same scenario in pretty much every industry.

Even our own.

Coaches or experts in the fitness industry who have advanced degrees, years of experience and buckets of client success stories are overshadowed by Instagram celebrities with 100,000 followers who have zero qualifications other than their ability to post endless images of themselves wearing next to nothing.

People choose to listen to a celebrity’s medical advice over the expertise of their doctors.

Or the remarkable phenomena of people who have been convinced by an influencer their liver and kidneys don’t work properly and the obvious solution is a detox tea.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: If you believe your organs aren’t working properly, please go to a doctor, don’t drink tea.)

And I’m sure we all have a story about this or that “personality” in the communications industry who sells their expertise based on the size of their social following vs. their actual expertise.

The Allure of Social Proof

As communications professionals, it’s part of our job to determine the value of social proof in our daily operations.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

We know it’s an important part of everything we do.

It’s key to media relations (we’ve had reporters tell us they wouldn’t write stories about clients unless they had a strong social media presence to help distribute the story), content distribution, influencer marketing and relations, user-generated content, or simply as a trust factor and superficial measure of who and what is valuable and trustworthy. 

Social Proof as an Indicator of Value

#TwitterCasting and similar practices highlight how deeply threaded social proof is in the decisions we make and everything we do.

Whether we like it or not, it is used as a primary indicator of value—often inaccurately.

Think about it.

I’m willing to bet you do it yourself.

How often have you read or (possibly more likely) shared (with or without reading) an article simply because it was widely shared?

Does the amount of shares indicate the quality of the article?

Sure, it might … but it might mean the title is good clickbait, the author has a large following, or the social shares are fabricated.

Does the size of a person’s social following (on Instagram or Twitter) indicate their level of influence?

It might … or it might mean they are a big name without a trusted community.

It could mean they bought a bunch of fake likes.

Or possibly (especially on Instagram) that they post a lot of half-naked pictures (often accompanied by motivational quotes and messages).

We assign value to people and things, simply because of social proof.

And in doing so, we put them in a position of influence.

This creates a dangerous dynamic.

Creating False Idols

Think about what happens when you assign influence to someone whose biggest qualification is social proof?

You have a bunch of social leaders who are unqualified or lack the depth of skill and knowledge to properly lead.

Let’s take an example from the bodybuilding and fitness world I mentioned earlier.

There is an epidemic of “Instagram Trainers”, who may have done one show, or maybe have only mastered booty posing and Instagram filters … and have somehow built large followings.

They then use this following to gain clients and lead athletes down a very dangerous physical and mental path because of their lack of expertise and knowledge.

But their clients follow exactly what they say, no matter how outrageous and absurd (and trust me, some of the advice I hear out there is ABSURD) because someone with 100,000 Instagram followers MUST know what they are doing, right?

This same thing happens in every industry.

And it can be disastrous for both clients and the industry reputation as a whole.

You add in brand endorsements and sponsorships and the false sense of influence simply multiplies, until you create demigods—unprepared (or unaware) of the responsibility their influence provided them.

Social Proof Throughout History

This use (or misuse) of social proof is nothing new and isn’t just based around social media—although social media makes it more omnipresent. 

You can see examples of this same idol-making dynamic of social proof bias throughout history—in big ways and small:

  • Canned laughter on sets of TV shows and theater events
  • McDonald’s signs that let you know “Billions and Billions” have been served
  • The mere act of signing-up for waitlists

Not to mention larger social movements and political events.

When we are uncertain, we look to popular opinion.

That’s one of our most prevalent and far-reaching cognitive biases.

When we want to reaffirm our own opinions, we look to influencers who seem to be in the know.

This is a part of human nature we will never change.

The Communicator’s Responsibility

As marketers we must accept social proof affects everything we do and look to how we can work with it or around it.

It is part of our responsibility to help clients:

  • Understand the short- and long-term benefits and risks of their influencer marketing choices. (As with most things, often a focus on short-term gain results in long-term risk.)
  • Chose influencers who align with the organization’s values and add more value than simple “influence”
  • Acknowledge the bias of social proof and be aware of how it affects consumer decisions (so we can make responsible and ethical choices)

An On-going Dialogue

As our digital world evolves, so does our vigilance in addressing these issues.

It’s an open conversation that needs to be had consistently.

How do you see social proof affect how we assign value? How have you overcome misplaced social proof in your communications campaigns?

Share your perspective in the comments below.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.