social media and the stock market

By Kate Prince, {grow} Community Member

A hacker starts an online rumor about a place crash. The “news” goes viral and the airline’s stock plummets. The hacker makes a fortune on stock short sales that day and slinks back to his anonymous world undetected.

A company legally makes a material announcement on Facebook about an acquistion but the “reach” of the news on Facebook is so low only a few company insiders see it. They pounce on the news and buy low-priced shares before the market can respond and make millions in a day. Investors are furious and sue the company.

A large, national retailer uses Big Data to identify emotionally-troubled teens and targets them as a leading demographic for alcohol and cigarette sales. A disgruntled employee blogs about this and the company loses $500 million in market value overnight.

Think these stories are far-fetched? Read on.

Every day, some company’s hard-fought reputation unravels after a damaging revelation on Facebook, an ill-conceived tweet is seen by millions, or a shocking video goes viral. The power of the gatekeepers has shifted, the public’s attention span is shorter, and a company’s reputation could be at the mercy of every person with a smart phone.

Yet shockingly, the corporate and financial worlds have not yet grasped this aspect of social media.

It’s not through lack of trying, but rather due to the fact that social media is a rapidly evolving digital construct and companies are floundering in their ability to change due to slow-moving financial regulators, organizational lethargy, and out-dated legal guidelines.

What happens when a company’s social reputation is left in the hands of a social media platform that can actually influence the emotional state of over a billion people? What if those people were investors?

The Experiment

By now, most of are familiar with Facebook’s infamous experiment on nearly 700,000 of its users to ascertain whether there was a correlation between the positive or negative content in our News Feed and our emotional state.

Enough has been written about that. We now need to take this ethical question beyond the 700,000 Facebook user-guinea pigs and ask: How is Facebook consciously influencing their 1.38 billion users every day? How is Big Data being used to manipulate events and sentiments that can make or break a company?

The answer to this question has vast implications for public companies and their stockholders.

Social Media & the Stock Market

Social media poses an entirely new challenge for reputation management because the positive or negative sentiments previously shared by consumers, clients or investors with their personal networks is now amplified— beyond their control, beyond traditional media and beyond normal PR techniques. And as the public’s collective trust in the media fades, trust in information shared socially is on the rise.

A recent study by Nielsen found that 84% of consumers trust recommendations from family and friends more than any other forms of advertising. So we know that social media has a huge influence on buyer behavior in the consumer world, but how does that influence translate into the financial world?

In 2010, Australian airliner QANTAS first felt the brunt of social media’s inclination to trust “straight from the horse’s mouth” sources when a misinformed tweet about a plane crashing in Indonesia lead to false media reports and a huge drop in the company’s share price.

QANTAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce told The World Today, “we first noticed a problem when our share price started to collapse, and that’s because of these reports coming out of Twitter.”

As the stock fell, the plane in question was still in the air.

Last year we witnessed one very extreme example of the impact social media can have on the entire financial market, when the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked, and a fake tweet was published that announced President Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House.

Although the account was suspended and the information was corrected as quickly as possible, the immediate effect this misinformation had on the stock market was astounding. Over $130 billion in stock value was wiped off the market in a matter of seconds, the S&P500 declined 0.9%, and high frequency trading algorithms wreaked havoc.

Financial Platforms Wake Up

Regulatory investigators began looking into how financial markets and the companies listed on them can manage the proliferation of price sensitive information shared on social media and the impact this has on company value.

In Australia, the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) declared that companies were now “legally obliged to monitor social media and disclose anything relevant to the market.” This was the first step for the financial platform in its attempt to tame the social media beast.

The United States took the next step. The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) changed the rules that determine what platforms companies can use to communicate with investors — widening the regulations to include Facebook and Twitter — so long as the companies made their investors aware of the outlets they intended to use.

If companies happen to use language in their communications that is deemed positive or negative during such an occasion, does that impact how widespread their message is disseminated?

This is compounded by the fact that due to the already restrictive algorithms and the plethora of content in the News Feed daily, many Facebook pages’ organic reach is down to only 6.15% in February 2014 (If you have 1000 ‘Likes’, your posts will only make it into the News Feeds of 61 users).

Is that fair to everyone? Couldn’t a company actually make an announcement on Facebook (complying with the SEC) but in reality “hide” the information because the organic reach is so low?

Markets Impacted by Emotion

Legal scholar Ryan Carlo warned that we are vulnerable to “digital market manipulation” — when companies use Big Data about a consumer’s background and emotional state to coerce them into purchasing goods they don’t need, or paying more than they should. But the issue at hand is that companies are now just as vulnerable to being cut off from consumers, or becoming the victim of negative market sentiment artificially driven by the platform they’re operating on.

A recent survey in the United Kingdom by Finextra Research has shown that 62% of brokers and heads of trading desks believe social media sentiment influences share prices.

This was investigated more thoroughly in 2010 by Cornell, who published their findings in the Journal of Computational Science—”Twitter mood predicts the stock market.” The research looked at whether societies at large can experience mood states that affect their collective decision-making. The study notes that:

“We know from psychological research that emotions, in addition to information, play an significant role in human decision-making. Behavioral finance has provided further proof that financial decisions are significantly driven by emotion and mood… It is therefore reasonable to assume that the public mood and sentiment can drive stock market values as much as the news.”

They weren’t wrong in that assumption—their results showed that certain public mood aspects could predict the daily up and down changes in the closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average with an accuracy of 87.6%.

A data team from the University of California took it one step further and created a computer model that “predicts the future of the stock market” by scanning public sentiment indicators on Twitter. The software was up to 11% more accurate than other models at predicting both the volume of trading and the value of stock the next day.

Though financial regulators are finally recognizing social media as a true player, the revelations coming out of Facebook’s emotional manipulations have changed the conversation. The financial regulators — the SEC in particular — need to decide whether they are comfortable blindly allowing Facebook to be so influential on the market while  keeping their algorithms private.

Taking that question to Twitter is of secondary concern, as the platform is fundamentally different; on Twitter, what you sign up for is what you get, their stream is unfiltered. Not only is Facebook designing the algorithms that decide what users see or don’t see, they’re also manipulating the News Feed for supplementary purposes, and have the potential to influence markets in this way, including the one that they are listed on.

The Ethical Concern

The critical issue for companies whose value is intrinsically linked to their public reputation is not knowing how Facebook plans to use this proven capability of emotional influence in the future. A Facebook researcher, Dr J Fowler, told CNN “If we want to make the world a better place on a massive scale, we should focus not just on changing a person’s behavior, but also utilizing the network to influence that person’s friends.”

It should be a serious concern to all Facebook users that we are so easily manipulated; as Jacob Silverman, author of Terms of Service: Social Media, Surveillance, and the Price of Constant Connection, told Wire Magazine, “as long as the platform remains such an important gatekeeper—and their algorithms utterly opaque—we should be wary about the amount of power and trust we delegate to it.”

Companies that are financially vulnerable to the whims of the public’s perception should be even more so.

I would welcome your observations and ideas about this topic in the comment section.

Kate Prince
Kate Prince is a financial communications consultant from Sydney, Australia. Kate specializes in assisting listed and unlisted companies develop strategies and manage issues across social media. Follow @kate_prince on Twitter.

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