NewsWhip founder and CEO Paul Quigley is joined by our head of research and editorial, Benedict Nicholson, for a NewsWhip data special for the 12th episode of the Pulse webinar series. Benedict notes the early trends emerging in 2021, including missed indicators leading up to the GameStop surge, Super Bowl advertising shifts that resonated with audiences, and how the vaccination rollout is being covered.

In addition to leading the NewsWhip Research Center in New York, Benedict Nicholson manages partnerships with internationally recognized media outlets furthering data journalism, which includes NewsWhip’s Data for Democracy program. Benedict also facilitates consultations with communicators from the top 10 public relations agencies across America and Europe and with Fortune 500 brands to discuss consumer engagement trends and effective media monitoring.

Note: This transcript has been modified for clarity and brevity.

Paul Quigley: Hello, I’m Paul Quigley. I’m joined by Benedict Nicholson, of the NewsWhip Research Center and welcome to the NewsWhip Pulse. We’ve got an action-packed show for you, this week. As the Head of the NewsWhip Research Center who’s deep in our data all the time, we’re able to go quite deep into some of the big, major news trends that are happening. We’re going to focus today on three that really encapsulate the interplay between media and news and social media, and that is the GameStop-Robinhood phenomenon, vaccination and engagement with vaccination content so far this year and, of course, for many people who are tuning in, the Super Bowl is going to be of interest. We’re going to look at that as well, and also use our new Compare feature [in NewsWhip Spike] to compare with previous Super Bowls which provide some very intriguing results. Danielle, our show’s producer, is just introducing herself in the chat. Pop some questions there. She’ll triage them, and perhaps we can address them as they come up and during our chat as well. Without further ado, the motto is “speed to incite” so we got to go and get to the insights. Let’s start with the vaccines, Ben. At the end of last year, the approval began for vaccines in the UK, the US, Israel to extend it into Europe. A major area of public health concern is fear of the vaccines, hesitancy about the vaccines and, of course, misinformation about the vaccines. It’s great to see what people are sharing and engaging with out there.

Benedict Nicholson: It’s definitely a very important topic. It’s probably one of the most important topics in the world, right now, and I just want to highlight we’re going to do things a little differently in this Pulse. Normally we would bring up a slideshow but we’re going to try and experiment with showing the product to illustrate some of the things that we’re talking about. I’m going to share my screen and talk through some of these trends that we’re seeing.

So this is vaccines. This is a search for vaccines, COVID vaccine, and all of the names of vaccines, the major ones that people have probably heard of which would be Pfizer, Astrazeneca, and Moderna. Then some of the less known ones as well are also captured within this but they wouldn’t necessarily come up in search, so the Russian vaccines, the Chinese vaccines that are being worked on as well, but those would all be encompassed here. It’s just that they’re less likely to appear as highly-engaged news items in the West. This is an English-language search only so that’s maybe why some of that bias comes in, but just so everyone knows what exactly we’re looking at.

I think the easiest way to approach this is just to kind of go left to right as we look at it. This is just a dashboard of public and media interest over time, so what that means is the number of articles published per day that fit the search parameters, then the public engagement with those search parameters as well.

We can look and see that about 21,000 articles per day is a pretty solid baseline of how many articles are being written. 20,000+ apart from at the weekends, interestingly, which is when media output drops off a cliff but public engagement doesn’t. Up here we can see the public engagement to those articles that are being published. This is the likes, shares, comments on social media that those articles being shared generate and what’s interesting here is mostly that it’s pretty solid. Normally we see a lot of peaks and troughs, a massive spike and then a fall away with stuff that’s you know, maybe interesting for a week. We’ll see later with the Super Bowl and GameStop that it really generated a massive amount of interest for three, four, or five days and then after that fell away but that’s not the case with vaccines. They’re really capturing the public’s interest all the time, millions of engagements every day – 345 million engagements consistently since the beginning of the year.

Paul: That’s very interesting as well. You look at the COVID spike even back in March 2020 when it became the most engaging news event in the history of the social web, it was pretty spiky as well. This ongoing interest is quite unusual and so something you’d expect for a perennial topic like Trump was last year, or something, right?

Paul: That’s very interesting as well. You look at the COVID spike even back in March 2020 when it became the most engaging news event in the history of the social web, it was pretty spiky as well. This ongoing interest is quite unusual and so something you’d expect for a perennial topic like Trump was last year, or something, right?

Benedict: Yeah, exactly. It’s people not getting sick of it, and I think a facet of that is different things are going viral as well, on different days, so we can look at some of the articles that are going viral. There are a variety. Perhaps the most interesting and the most worrying facet of this is the things like this top article that we can see here. It’s not misinformation in the way that we normally think about misinformation. It’s much more on the audience side.

This [pointing to article] is a perfectly accurate article that is being shared in a way that is maybe disingenuous. It’s “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why”. A little bit of a sensational headline, but the article itself is very balanced. It says there’s no proof there’s any link, all of the caveats that you would expect from a piece of good news reporting, but the problem is the headline is being shared either out of context or in a way that confirms people’s priors. Should I worry about getting the vaccine? Or a healthy person died after getting the vaccine. This isn’t in a misinformation site, this is in the Chicago Tribune, which is a 150-year-old newspaper that is widely seen as a legitimate news source. We’ve seen this happen before. I am sure you remember, Paul, with the AP reporting about funding for protecting children went viral in QAnon communities. The same thing might be happening here where people are taking news out of context.

Paul: This is a major phenomenon… when your priors, as you say, Ben. That’s this phrase that people in maybe the rationalist community use, right? Like your prior assumptions frame things and then you’re just really looking for facts that confirm expectations. Certainly, we’ve seen a whole category of stories where health complications being reported by very legitimate publications post vaccination are probably the most shared category of vaccine content there is.

Benedict: Exactly. Even if not the most shared then the most highly engaged or if not the most often shared than the most highly engaged. We actually looked at the top hundred stories on the blog and categorized them by their categories and there were a lot of ones that were like this and what’s interesting is they often come in local news. We can see here the OC Register, which is just a local California publication out of Orange County, I think that has 750,000+ engagements on news of a health care worker dying after receiving the second dose of the COVID vaccine. People trust local news outlets. This is kind of a way to show people can share things disingenuously and say, “Look, this local news outlet is saying this. You trust your local news outlet. You know, you should be aware of this.”

And that’s a real problem with vaccine hesitancy that we see. The more these narratives go unchecked the more likely it is that we see vaccine hesitancy. Given the high amount of vaccine proliferation we’re going to need to see to get to any kind of herd immunity, this is all potentially damaging to that, but not in a traditional misinformation way that we would normally think about.

Paul: Yeah and it’s a real bind because, from a platform perspective, this is not misinformation. This is accurately reported news. News organizations they’re going to want to report newsworthy items like these. Presumably, these are newsworthy for people to know, maybe some disingenuous sharing but there’s probably a lot of hesitancy leading to this sharing.

You can see there’s a real bind here for media for the platforms… unlike with coordinated misinformation or coordinated bot activity, which Facebook can just take down, or actual misinformation, which they can flag take down, boot off Infowars or whatever.

Benedict: And Facebook is taking action. They suspended Robert Kennedy Jr’s account for vaccine misinformation in the past week, and they have committed to taking down COVID misinformation as well. But then again this hits that gray area, as you say. It makes it really difficult for any kind of moderation because nothing’s false. It’s just that there’s no proven link. I just quickly want to reference the other types of stories that go viral.

We’ve seen a lot of stuff about vaccines getting delivered to remote areas, so especially like the story here. Getting COVID-19 vaccines to West and Central Africa. We see it there in places like Alaska as well, so people are getting really encouraged by the fact that the vaccine isn’t just going to major cities. It’s also going to places that need it, not just the cities that we’re obviously aware of.

Then the other thing that people are looking at is what life will be like after the vaccine and especially in terms of the precautions that they’ll need to take . It’s interesting that people are almost taking it as a given that the vaccine is coming, it’s going to work. But what do I need to do even once I have the vaccine in terms of like do I need to wear a mask, will schools be open, do I need a vaccine passport? I think it’s interesting to see people’s mindset around this and I think that offers some evidence into that. I think, just to quickly go back to the non-misinformation vs. disinformation, it’s important that people are aware that this is out there because then it can be countered.

That’s not something that comes up, for example, if you just look at the Facebook Pages that are going viral as we move from left to right here. There’s a lot of great stuff in here. UNICEF, lots of UNICEF posts, and World Health Organization posts that Facebook is actually promoting and encouraging. But if you’re just looking at what Pages go viral on Facebook you wouldn’t necessarily know about this other stuff that’s being shared. So it’s really important to take a cross-platform view there.

Paul: Very good. That’s very interesting on the Facebook posts and the articles. The next column here will be the websites that are creating the articles that are getting the most engagement across the web, right? This is an important factor to see the quality of those sources and the quality of what people are engaging with.

Benedict: Precisely. Really this is very encouraging. It’s like a who’s who of legitimate news sites. It just looks at the last month or so, which is why the Chicago Tribune article isn’t included in there, because that was from January 7th. This measures back to January 13th, but we have The New York Times, NBC News, CNN, NPR, Washington Post, etc. It’s much the same as we look at the top authors. Katherine Wu, from the Atlantic. Kayna Whitworth. Teri Sforza. NBC all over the place., local news sites. It’s just very encouraging when we look at that aspect of it. This article from the Chicago Tribune was published on January 7th so we haven’t seen a huge proliferation of that sort of thing. Since then, that’s the most salient example. It’s not like it’s been a continuous wave of these things, which is also good, because it means there’s not much reporting of that kind that’s happening – that people aren’t necessarily dying, or having health complications, after receiving the vaccine which is just good, positive news for the vaccine.

Paul: Great! Okay, well, let’s look at some public conversation then we’re going to jump on Reddit to have a look, yes?

Benedict: So with Reddit it’s almost always a political angle, with this type of thing. As we can see here, the public conversation is very much about the Biden administration approaching the COVID vaccine distribution from scratch. Essentially, it’s what the claim was in the reporting and the discussions around having zero plans. Allegedly that the Trump administration had zero plans for the Biden admins to build on. People were excited about Biden being sworn in, because they then felt that the vaccine distribution would get better. Then again public consumption of the vaccine – that’s a very big focus of conversations among the public, obviously. So is football stadiums being offered as COVID vaccination sites. People are, I think, generally pretty excited to get the vaccine, so the more news about high levels of distribution, higher levels of availability, new sites where they can get it, that’s generally been quite an exciting thing for people to discuss on platforms where discussion is heavy, like Reddit.

Paul: Right. Maybe we should move on from here, unless there’s any questions? If you do have any questions about the vaccine content getting engagement, drop them in the chat and we will save a few minutes at the end for those. Maybe we switch topics to the Super Bowl. For the audience, Ben and I are not at all qualified to talk about the Super Bowl in any way. Thankfully there’s ads during the Super Bowl and it’s the ads that are a big deal. Who doesn’t love ads?

Ben: Indeed.

Paul: So let’s talk about what happened there. This is a very interesting chart, what are we looking at here?

Benedict: So this is a look at the engagement to Super Bowl ads in the past four years. It looks at a comparison of reporting about the ads in 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018. Here we have the pink-red line is this year’s ads and you can see it’s a very different shape to how it normally is. The reason we have this double spike is because actually this year a few notable brands decided that they weren’t actually going to do a Super Bowl ad. So we saw that with Budweiser, with Coke / Coca-Cola, and with Pepsi. Those announcements that they weren’t going to run a Super Bowl ad actually received as much public attention as reporting about the ads themselves during the day of the game, on the weekend of the game. What we normally see is just a huge spike on the day of the game, on the weekend of the game. Those have been much bigger in previous years, so 2019 and 2020 have much bigger spikes on the day of, or the weekend of, then, then they did this year.

Paul: And it’s that first pink spike, these are big numbers, right? Those are millions on the right side here. You’re looking at getting up to 2 million maybe net engagements just around the Budweiser announcement, for the most part.

Benedict: Yeah, I’ll jump into Budweiser really quickly. This is a comparison of looking at Budweiser Super Bowl ads over the past four years. You can see it’s not even close. This announcement this year (it’s blue this time) actually got way more engagement than any of their actual ads ever did in the past. I just thought that was an interesting piece of information that in terms of actually bringing attention not only to themselves, but to the cause that they were promoting, they diverted the money that they would have spent on Super Bowl ads to vaccine education and we actually saw it as the top YouTube post from Budweiser. In the last in the vaccine panel that we looked at vaccine education is where they spent their millions of dollars that they weren’t spending on advertising. They brought attention, not only to themselves, by not running the Super Bowl ads. It was mostly positive coverage, which is great for them, but also to the vaccine awareness cause, which is brilliant.

Paul: Amazing. You need a logarithmic curve because you just squashed all previous years, with what they did this year kind of.

Benedict: Exactly, and you can see, I mean 1.4 million interactions to Budweiser canceling their Super Bowl ad. 377,000 was the best year that past ads had so its three, four, or five times that, which is fascinating.

I know we want to get to GameStop, I just wanted to quickly point out one thing. This is just focusing on the 2021 ads. You can see the early spike here, where people said they weren’t going to run ads, and then the subsequent build up to the game day, the game day itself. Public interest actually interestingly precedes media interest here. The public were more interested in stuff being cancelled than the media were and then the media were more interested in the ads around the game themselves. I think that’s probably a fairly predictable thing. People are always writing about the Super Bowl ads, not every publication is going to write about a brand’s decision to cancel.

I just wanted to highlight the peaks and troughs that we normally see which contrast with what we were talking about with the vaccine stuff, and then just have a look at what some of the top stories were so you can see that the Budweiser decision to sit out the Super Bowl in front of marketing dollars to do vaccine awareness. That’s the top article with 350,000 engagements. But then what does it mean to have a viral Super Bowl ad? It’s one thing for it to be watched on YouTube and shared on Facebook and etc. Once it’s out there it’s kind of out of your control and I just wanted to spend a couple of minutes thinking about that. Toyota, for example, had the most engaged story about an ad that actually ran. The ad was about a swimmer who was adopted and overcame adversity and eventually competed at a Paralympic level. Then that gets taken and spun in a way that you quickly lose control over. The top article about that ad came from the Daily Wire and attached a strong pro-life message to that ad, which that definitely was not an explicit part of the ad to me. I suppose it could be read that way, but I mean all of a sudden you’re a brand that’s taken a stance. Whether that was the intention or not you’re having a stance put on your company so that’s a potentially a difficult thing to deal with from a communications standpoint, so I just thought that was interesting. Then again there’s Jeep. There’s a lot going on with the Jeep ad and Bruce springsteen. I’m sure people have seen the DWI stuff or everything around that. Even before that the Jeep ad was getting a lot of attention in a partisan way, because that one was a more political ad that was saying, “Hey, we need to come together, we need to return to the center.” Then it got criticized by mostly conservative sites saying, “Well, where were you saying this when Trump was President? It’s all well and good saying it now Biden’s President, but you were vocally critical of Trump, Bruce Springsteen.”

Why is this happening now? We could have all come together two years ago, according to the publications that think in that way. It was by far the most written about ad. But that’s not always a good thing, right? You have to look at what those articles that got high engagement were and whether the conversation that was being driven around it was a good thing or not. It’s all well and good reaching all these publications but what were people actually saying, actually engaging with? Which publications were they? You see the Daily Wire, Fox News. Looking at the top publishers there it’s a very different, more conservative set of publishers.

Paul: I think what’s intriguing is it comes back to something Richard Edelman said at PRovoke Media a couple of years ago about the news ecosystem is getting so complicated. The ad guys build a really powerful but simple narrative and then the curtain closes. The curtain doesn’t close anymore. You need people who specialize in the complex, because the story is always evolving and it keeps going after the 30-second ad is run. The other interesting thing is here the stories are the ads that get the most engagement in the wider world of media is quite different to what I might see on AdAge for people writing about, like Oatly. It’s interesting that when it gets more mass engagement, you see some other things cropping up as well.

Benedict: Exactly, the Reddit ad did do well, especially on Reddit itself. Wallstreetbets shared the Super Bowl commercial, which I thought was interesting.

So this is GameStop. I think if we were looking for an example of the need to understand all the different aspects of social media and media interaction and public engagement and interest I don’t think there’s a better example than this. I did just want to quickly show a nice little graph that we put together of the public engagement with GameStop as compared to the stock price of GameStop, and you can see those mirror each other quite nicely I think that’s a very cool little comparison graph there. What’s interesting is, you can see GamesStop start to rise in the stock price before it breaks into the mainstream and public engagement almost. That’s where this bit, here, is where the conversation on Reddit is happening. So that’s before it takes off into the mainstream. For people that don’t know, Wallstreetbets essentially declared war against hedge funds that were shorting GameStop and tried to make the stock price run up. This all happened on Reddit before eventually breaking into the mainstream. That’s where you can see this huge, huge spike in interest you know, 3 to 4 million engagements a day. Then that quickly fades away once the stock price starts falling back to lower levels.

This is just one of those examples that we really have to look at it from every angle and see where are people engaging? How did this get into the mainstream? How much conversation happened on Reddit before it went into the mainstream? These are all questions that are difficult to answer, but we can answer them by looking at some of these viral posts and Wallstreetbets and seeing where that originated.

Paul: Again, the business press that’s most influential when we get into the wider media sphere, like outside of traders, it’s Business Insider, CNBC is there. Forbes and the New York Post producing the most engaged content about the whole phenomenon.

Benedict: Exactly, and I think it’s interesting. We had a conversation offline about this billboard and this top New York Post story. It’s just things happen online that do have real-world impacts. Suddenly there’s a billboard in Times Square. I’ll click into it there for you. Defiant Redditors banding together to buy a Time Square billboard that basically was a meme. I mean you saw it’s a “GameStop go brrr”, which is a reference to the “money printer go brrr” meme that people may or may not be aware of, which is a fun one.

Paul: So to summarize, an online community and bands together to buy a billboard to post a meme, being reported by the New York post, getting shared, and engagement 400,000 times on Facebook becoming a really significant news story in itself. You’ve got this story jumping out of the screen, back into the screen, and morphing. That’s before we even get down to the AOC-Ted Cruz jousting about this as well. It’s amazing any story gets big enough, just like we’ve got teams delivering vaccines to outposts in Alaska getting big shares, we’ve got a college student using his GameStop stock earnings to buy video games for a children’s hospital and earning a lot of Reddit Karma doing so as another.

Inspiring stories. When a story gets big enough, it seems to quickly spawn a political dimension, inspiring dimensions. It becomes this microcosm.

Benedict: Exactly, and that was the top story on Reddit as well, you know? Using his GME tendies, for want of a better word. To buy a Nintendo Switch from GameStop itself and then donated to a children’s hospital says it’s this spiraling interdependent story you were talking about. Imagine explaining to someone from five years ago, how the story evolved and how GameStop ended up on a Times Square billboard? I just think the communications landscape has changed so much that it’s just impossible to understand it without understanding all the interlocking pieces I think.

Paul: Sure is. Danielle, are there any questions? If anyone was intrigued by what we saw there, you know, on GameStop please drop a question in. We got one earlier. What kind of data requests are you typically getting from journalists?

Benedict: Good question. I think it’s mostly about how big an attention grabbing event is. I think often journalists are on Twitter a lot. I think not just journalists, but people’s views, are often warped by what’s trending on Twitter. That’s not what is trending on the web necessarily. That’s not what people are sharing on Facebook, it’s not what people are talking about on instagram. There’s a big disconnect a lot of the time.

So knowing what’s trending on Twitter is great, but it’s really putting that into the context of the wider web and finding out how big a story this particular thing is, overall, in the whole ecosystem. That tends to be the context that we are giving journalists when they ask when they ask us questions like this.

Paul: Look it’s some really interesting things being uncovered there. Of course, if anyone tunes in and if you have any follow up questions, if you’re a NewsWhip user, ping your CSM we can connect you with Ben or give you guidance, if you want to recreate any of the searches here or delve into any of these things because there’s worlds within worlds once you start interacting with the data there.

I think, for once, we might be in a position to finish on time here, Ben. So before we let everyone go we’ve got a really exciting guest to announce in two weeks time. It’s Tonia Ries who’s the Executive Director of IP at Edelman and she’s one of the stewards of the Trust Barometer. She’ll be joining me to discuss the key findings in this year’s report, which included further decline and trust in media and institutions and some really interesting phenomena that certainly really struck me. We want to dive into both the methodology and ask, “Is this really as bad as this suggests it is?” and try and unpack some of the subtleties in there. I think it’s really important for anyone who’s doing earned today, who’s doing owned today, and who’s responsible for reputation today. Please join us in two weeks for that. Join me in thanking Ben for all of your awesome insights this week.

Benedict: Of course! Thanks, Paul, for having me and thanks for listening in, everyone. It’s great to be here again.