These interactions are not only changing our personal lives but also redefining civic engagement. Much research has been conducted on Barak Obama’s campaigns, which generated a grassroots movement with social media as the primary tool of engagement. With the Arab Spring, the sweep of protests across the region proved that young, leaderless activists using primarily online and mobile tools could topple dictatorial regimes.
There is a quieter but equally powerful revolution is taking place in the private sector. The dynamics witnessed in the Arab Spring between citizens and their governments can also be witnessed amongst consumers and corporations. “Citizen consumers” are using social media to redefine corporate norms and create a new set of expectations regarding corporate transparency and social responsibility. Today’s consumers, particulary the younger generation, expect corporations to go beyond shareholder value and create value for society as well. The triple bottom line is a mainstream concept for Gen Y and social media is a key tool for this generation to push corporates in that direction.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which protested against the financial services sector’s perceived corruption and undue influence on the government, used social media to organise protests, recruit supporters, and raise awareness. Thousands of users expressed outrage on Nestle’s Facebook page over the company’s unsustainable sourcing of palm oil for its Kit Kat bars. The telecoms provider Sprint improved its policies to better protect victims of domestic violence after a Change.org petition obtained 175,000 signatures.
“Greenwashing” is a common complaint of citizen consumers, meaning companies market themselves as committed to corporate social responsibility but without any actual CSR activities or policies. Through the “wisdom of the crowds” and instantaneous access to information, citizen consumers are well informed and frequently expose companies that attempt to ride the CSR trend through marketing alone.
But there is an opportunity here as well. Social media can work through positive reinforcement and an Edelman survey revealed that 53% of millenials would promote a socially responsible brand on Facebook. Corporations who integrate sound CSR policies and implement them effectively will find themselves rewarded.
It is clear that a shift is taking place. Social media provides individuals with the unprecedented opportunity to speak for themselves. By combining their voice (through social media) and their purchasing power, citizen consumers are changing the expectations placed on the private sector.