Those stories went viral on the social networks, and Apple very quickly became viewed by some as a greedy, slave-driving abuser of Chinese youth. Never mind that conditions at Apple factories have always been better than the Chinese average. The social networks were freaking out, and Apple had to act fast or be destroyed in the court of social networking public opinion.
Apple brought in the Fair Labor Association to audit conditions. When they found “widespread violations of Chinese labor laws,” Apple promised to aggressively fix them all by the end of the year.
These are just two recent examples of how social networks forced action by powerful organizations.
Others included the arrest of George Zimmerman in the Travon Martin shooting; and the loss of advertisers and a forced apology by radio talk show personality Rush Limbaugh after the social networks savaged him for offensive comments.
Before social media, information and opinion flowed from powerful organizations to the public almost exclusively, or remained in geographic isolation. Even information about public opinion could be spun to the very public that held that opinion.
Communication used to be one-to-one, or one-to-many. One TV network would broadcast to many viewers. If a viewer had a comment or complaint, that response was one-to-one -- an e-mail or a phone call -- and therefore totally ineffective as a form of public pressure.
Social media connects everyone to everyone, and makes communication many-to-many. Now, if someone has a comment or complaint about a TV network, it can go viral on the social networks and millions of people can join in with agreement. Not only does everyone hear the opinion, but everyone knows that everyone hears the opinion.
With millions of critical eyeballs tearing apart every news story and picking through the minutia of every report, errors, lies, hypocrisy and more are almost always found by someone somewhere, then those findings can also spread virally.
A general consensus. The conventional wisdom. Common knowledge. All these things now change overnight because of social media.
A bill before congress is contrary to the will of the majority. A mobile software utility violates privacy. A health-related non-profit plays politics. Dog food is in our children's hamburgers. A consumer electronics company is abusing Chinese factory workers.
Social media conversations, shares and re-shares turn these basic ideas into memes, which become their own kind of “truth.”
And that’s why powerful organizations like governments and corporations are afraid of social media.
The rising power of social media is happening fast. We’re rushing into a world in which the only way to exert real power is to influence opinion on social media.
Of course, when public opinion is divided, the power of social media neutralizes itself. And this will happen on most issues.
But when public opinion on the social networks is united, watch out! Nothing can stand in its way.