After Chase Bank: What you ought to know about digital wildfires

April 29, 2016
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The sensational manner in which Chase Bank collapsed is still reeling in Kenyans’ minds close to three weeks after it happened. While the recent acquisition by KCB may have brought some sense of relief to the bank’s depositors, it’s hard to decipher if the bank will ever be the same again. A unique element about Chase Bank’s collapse was the role of digital media in the turn of events. Digital media, specifically Twitter (and the infamous KOT) in this case, was apparently so influential in this crisis that it gained serious mention from the CBK governor in his first press conference regarding Chase Bank. Digital media activity is not restricted to online confines anymore. We are now at a point whereby digital activity is driving significant offline action. This is our new reality.

The World Economic Forum in 2014 highlighted “Digital Wildfires”, a term referring to the rapid spread of massive digital misinformation in online media, as one of the main threats to our society. We now live in a ‘World on Wi-Fire’ in which hyperconnectivity could amplify humankind’s most primeval emotions on a large scale. As Kenyans, we are proud of how far we have come in ICT adoption and consumption of digital media. Kenya is reported as being 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 also 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 the digital wildfires.  First, the motivation behind which a rumor begins to spread is important. The spread of rumors online is an act of goal-oriented communication, often motivated by a desire to find out whether or not they are true. Twitter research conducted in the aftermath of the Chase Bank fiasco, shows that a large number of people were tweeting simply trying to find out if what they were hearing from their friends was true.

Secondly, 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, the ambiguity brought about by the failure of both the lender and the Central Bank to communicate effectively during the crisis, only served to fuel the fire. There was an information vacuum which made the situation snowball very quickly. The media, which was the second port of call for the distressed public, was also 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 the effects of most wildfires, the damage was done before any reassurance or correction could be done. Tweets from the CBK and the media, didn’t get nearly as much reach or response as those from regular accounts claiming to have information on the collapse.

Thirdly, context is of utmost importance. The larger context of the situation at hand needs to be taken into consideration. What happened before this point? What other external/secondary factors could exacerbate it? In the case of Chase, two other banks had gone under in the past 9 months, with Imperial Bank’s collapse happening as recently as October 2015. This was a major factor in how Kenyans reacted to the rumours of a probable Chase Bank collapse. People simply don’t trust their banks as much as they used to. Looking at data from Twitter, it was very apparent that the wounds from the Imperial Bank collapse were still fresh for many Kenyans. The lack of trust in the banking sector was very apparent in the way in which depositors rushed to make withdrawals from Chase Bank after they heard rumors that the bank was about to go under. Better safe than sorry, as they say. This is the power of context. Understand the bigger picture to adeptly deal with digital wildfires.

Lastly, understand the players and their roles. Understanding who are the key propagators of information 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 in this case. Having digitally attuned citizens means that a large number of people are getting their news from digital platforms, like social media and messaging apps. However, this news does not necessarily come from traditional authorities like media or government. On social mediums, authoritative sources are now jostling for position with friends and relatives. In the Chase Bank case, this was evident in the amount of reach and responses that tweets from regular accounts got in comparison to media and the government. On social media, almost anyone can come off as an authority, especially in the circles  in which they are already influential. Those within a social group are less likely to believe information that comes from outside that group.

Digital wildfires can start at any moment. Research shows that the Chase Bank digital crisis begun with only 2 tweets. Digital alertness must become the new cornerstone of digital communication for brands and organizations. Listen just as much, or even more, than you talk. However, digital platforms are a noisy place, so ensure you have the right tools and team to sift the signal from the noise and put out your next spark before it becomes a wildfire.

Odanga Madung is the Data Science Lead at Odipo Dev, a Data Science & Social Intelligence Firm.

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