Beyond Facebook: A lesson in “dark social”

By Sumaiya Omar

Hashtag Our Stories

Durban, South Africa


Last week we produced a video in South Africa that “went viral” — viral enough to be featured on the big radio and TV stations. We doubled our audience across all social accounts.

But here’s the thing: The video only hit 300,000 views on Facebook as of the writing of this post.

That’s not really a viral number.

When this video interviewing supporters of former President Jacob Zuma’s supporters hit social platforms like WhatsApp, it became impossible to know how far it reached.
When this video interviewing supporters of former President Jacob Zuma’s supporters hit social platforms like WhatsApp, it became impossible to know how far it reached.

The video is a bunch of interviews with former President Jacob Zuma’s supporters who say they’d literally die for him amidst his corruption charges and court appearances. We’re asking the obvious questions: Why are his supporters backing a man facing 16 corruption charges?

The video is our first attempt at satire, but it’s also very aligned to all Hashtag Our Stories objectives by giving a marginalised, underrepresented group a chance to share their stories and voices. We left the lawyers, political commentators, and Zuma himself for the big cameras and traditional media. We stuck to the people.

But the momentum that propelled the virality and impact of this video didn’t come from Facebook only. It was downloaded and uploaded into countless WhatsApp groups and conversations. And that’s when it really started travelling quickly.

In a country like South Africa — like many emerging economies — where data is expensive, WhatsApp is king. People can download a video and show it to friends and families from their devices. A downloaded video becomes a social commodity.

But closed messaging apps like WhatsApp come with their own problems.

We have no idea how far the video actually travelled. There’s no data or analytics on the number of shares, views, comments, conversations, and engagements. It’s called “dark social.”

Dark social is when people share content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and e-mail. It’s almost impossible to track, and it takes on a life of its own.

The trajectory of the video went from Facebook to WhatsApp before it was uploaded again by others onto Facebook.

While information is somewhat confined to echo chambers on Facebook (determined by algorithms based on the pages we like and friends we have), closed platforms like WhatsApp, not bound by these algorithms, break through some of the echo chambers offering a whole new audience. Within WhatsApp people may be part of groups on all ends of the spectrum.

And that’s how the video started re-emerging on Facebook, downloaded off WhatsApp groups and uploaded to both profiles and pages, as if people owned the footage themselves.

A Democratic Alliance politician (the country’s leading opposition party) uploaded the video on her personal profile and got more than 5,000 shares when she called it the “greatest story of the year.”

Then, a right-wing group uploaded it to its Facebook page and amassed hundreds of thousands of views when it headlined the video “Why democracy doesn’t work.” The title implied that some South African voters are uneducated, uninformed, and shouldn’t be entitled to a vote.

Our video was being weaponised by racist trolls. The video touches on “white monopoly capital,” land issues, race, and class. It was always going to attract trolls. But we’ve come to realise these aren’t trolls. They are real people, on the other side of the echo chamber.

And dark social gives us the opportunity to reach and engage with these unique groups.

With mobile phone prevalence on the rise, and the high cost of data in emerging countries, dark social has never been more relevant. According to a RadiumOne report, 84% of consumers sharing with outbound audiences comes from private, dark social.

We can spend countless hours filing plagiarism reports and asking the platforms to pull down the breaches to our intellectual property when people upload our video as their own. But there’s no point fighting it. The Internet has no space for control freaks. As the old maxim goes, information wants to be free.

Our job is to understand these platforms and the way information travels on them. We need to add as much context and as many insights to our videos as possible. We need to brand and label them clearly. So, when they are shared, both within and outside of our channels, we maximise reach and minimise the opportunity for people to manipulate our videos for their gains.

About Sumaiya Omar

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