The era of the new opinion leaders

A new breed of opinion leaders is driving public debates: they mobilize their fans via social networks and thus set the media agenda. What we can learn from them.

Greta Thunberg has brought the climate crisis with all the force back into consciousness and staged as Joan of Arc of the young generation. And entrepreneur Elon Musk, with Tesla, brought electric mobility to the world as an alternative drive and himself onto the stage as a disruptive innovator. Both are examples of a new generation of opinion makers who set the media agenda via social networks: They deliberately stage themselves, set their topics and create facts. In this way, they influence in their own way what we talk about, what we think about and how we see the world.

Dominance of social media

Today, everyone is both a sender and a receiver. Anyone can reach anyone anywhere directly, and every opinion resonates. The leading media have long since ceased to set the trends exclusively; instead, they primarily amplify the topics that are already having an impact in the digital space. Most journalistic offerings are still predominantly ad-financed. Digital subscription models are finding it difficult to get off the ground in Europe, and accordingly the offerings follow the rules of an extreme attention economy. Clicks on ads bring money. The more people come to a page, the higher the click probability. Journalists are thus only officially in the information business. In truth, they are in the time-wasting business of entertainment, which is all about excitement and “the next big thing” is always imminent. It is only under this impression that users stay tuned and check the websites again and again.

Add to that the dominance of social media. What takes place here will soon determine the public discussion. Users upload masses of content: photos, music, videos, but also political comments and ratings. Extreme digital social networking creates echo chambers. Everyone sees what they want to see in their newsfeed. This leads to increasingly extreme positions and a high level of mobilization – with an increasingly black-and-white view of things.

Elon Musk, for example, knows this and is cleverly exploiting the situation. The electric car pioneer and multi-entrepreneur has almost 40 million followers on Twitter alone, with whom he can communicate unfiltered. With his story of zero-emission driving, garnished with fantasy-inspiring terms like “Gigafactory” (a car factory) or “Supercharger” (a fast charger), he has created the most valuable vehicle manufacturer in the world, although sales figures remain manageable. Musk tells his story from the underdog’s perspective, which seems absurd given that he himself is now one of the most influential and richest people on the planet. And he has his allies: Persistently, his followers publicly defend him against any criticism with a devotion that seems almost religious. Musk’s narrative that electric mobility is much more forward-looking than internal combustion engines could ever be, and that we are thus saving the planet together, has prevailed despite all the doubters. Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller has proven that such stories are contagious and have a direct impact on public opinion – and thus on the economy. They spread by word of mouth, at dinner parties, on the Internet, radio, television or the Web. The other automakers simply don’t have a story to counter this at the moment.

Mobilizing higher moral purpose

For Greta Thunberg, on the other hand, the view of tomorrow is more ominous. She has brought the issue of climate protection back to the top of the public perception through a radical escalation. That is an incredible communication achievement. Almost ten million people follow her on social channels, and she tells the story there something like this: Nothing less than the survival of humanity is at stake as a result of rapid climate change. The elites are unwilling to act because of economic interests. Only the younger generation can change that. Because the world can still be saved if we all finally act properly.

It is above all such higher moral goals that motivate us humans in particular – and which Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg use in equal measure. Both stage their activities as a kind of David versus Goliath battle. Both use the power of direct interaction with their fans on social networks. And both play with the hopes and fears that the future might bring. As opinion leaders, they have thus become unmistakable brands of our time. Brands provide orientation, simplify our perception and create identification. The more complex the world, the more we long for proven elements in our everyday lives. Fans and followers feel a sense of belonging to their idols, spread their ideas and defend them in public discourse. This is much easier today thanks to social networks, but it is not new. The desire to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging to a common cause is deeply ingrained. We want personal recognition from a group, including by setting ourselves apart from other points of view.

This public play with the self can inspire. Today more than ever, it determines victory or defeat and can produce powerful biographies. Successful people are so successful because they influence public opinion in their favor and actively take care of it. No one’s role just fell to them. Therefore, make the world your stage, too. Think about what role you want to play on it, what you want to advocate and what story you want to tell. Then clear your throat, shake off your stage fright – and step into the spotlight.

Continue reading in: Supremacy of Interpretation. The patterns of opinion leaders. BusinessVillage 2020.

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