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If you’re in Risk Management or Communications, it’s probably safe to say you stay relatively attuned to the online conversational landscape. You may have even observed the ways conversations across online media can give way to specific narratives that grow and evolve over time.

During the historic racial justice protests of 2020, for example, you may have seen narratives around policing emerge from the broader conversation, and observed how those narratives evolved from focusing on reform to arguing for defunding or even abolishing the police.

Sometimes these narratives disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Other times, however, they persist, eventually jumping from the internet to the physical world – with real consequences for businesses, organizations, and individuals. These consequences might come in the form of threats to a company’s stock price or physical property, or to the safety of individuals. Alternatively, they might be more positive in nature, presenting opportunities for a business to enhance their reputation or promote their values. 

Whatever the case, Risk Management and Communications professionals need strong narrative intelligence resources to get ahead of these narratives, so they can mitigate the threats or capitalize on the opportunities that come from them. Our new guide to narrative intelligence, Get Ahead of the Unknown, shows how they can build and leverage those resources.

Get Ahead of the Unknown Narrative Intelligence eBook link

Here are three real-life examples, from the guide, of online narratives having real-world impact on organizations and the public.

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COVID-Related Racism Against Asians Jumps from the Screen

For over a year now, there has been abundant discussion of racism against Asians and Asian-Americans in the context of the pandemic. Zignal analyzed the emergence and growth of online narratives demonizing China over COVID-19, and found that between March 1, 2020 and March 17, 2021, across various social media platforms, there were:

  • 3,738,405 mentions of “Chinese virus”
  • 3,308,660 mentions of “Wuhan virus”
  • 581,426 mentions of “kung flu”
Mentions trends show anti-Chinese narratives surging early in the pandemic

Mentions trends show anti-Chinese narratives surging early in the pandemic, with smaller spikes occurring over the subsequent 12-month period.

After a year or so of these narratives circulating, media outlets began reporting an alarming spike in violent crime directed at Asians and Asian-Americans, with many incidents in which perpetrators used the aforementioned terms while committing these crimes. This shows the ways online narratives can jump from the screen to the physical world. 

“Online narratives can pose threats to a company’s stock price or physical property, or to the safety of individuals. Alternatively, they might be more positive in nature, presenting opportunities for a business to enhance their reputation or promote their values.”

Learn more about this important issue in this article from Axios, which leverages Zignal data to show the prevalence of anti-Asian narratives, as well as the subsequent proliferation of counter-narratives through the hashtag #StopAsianHate.

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Multifaceted risk from anti-vaccine narratives

In late 2020, a pharmacist in Wisconsin intentionally spoiled hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine doses. His motive? A belief in a narrative that the vaccine was designed to alter recipients’ DNA, which had been circulating online for months. 

Narrative intelligence shows that the “vaccines change DNA” narrative surged online for several weeks before the the incident in Wisconsin.

Mentions of "vaccines change DNA" narrative

The “vaccines change DNA” narrative surged online for several weeks before the pharmacist’s actions.

The pharmacist’s actions delayed early local rollout of the vaccine, endangering the health of people in the community. It also further amplified the “vaccines change DNA” narrative, potentially contributing to vaccine hesitancy or provoking another incident in the future. This shows how narrative-borne threats can, if unaddressed, create a vicious cycle: An online narrative eventually culminates in a physical-world incident, which in turn draws more attention to the original narrative.

“Narrative-borne threats can, if unaddressed, create a vicious cycle: An online narrative eventually culminates in a physical-world incident, which in turn draws more attention to the original narrative.”

The new guide explores this issue further, showing how the Wisconsin incident has implications ranging from crisis communications to regulatory compliance – and how these implications can impact industries beyond just pharma.

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Moderna bucks the trend on vaccine patents

Risk and threats are not the only things that come from emerging online narratives. Some narratives create opportunities for companies as well. 

Take Moderna, who last year announced that they would not enforce the patent on their COVID-19 vaccine. The question of whether COVID-19 vaccine patents should be enforced was thrust into the spotlight when the Biden administration announced its support, in May 2021, of waiving those patents to broaden global vaccine access. But the issue has actually received regular attention in online narratives since the start of the pandemic. Importantly, the narratives have shown broad appeal, gaining traction in numerous, and vastly different, conversational contexts.

Perhaps noting the sustained nature of the vaccine patent narrative, the diversity of its promoters, and that their competitors had created an opening by remaining largely quiet on the issue, Moderna made their announcement in October of 2020. The following week, the company’s positive sentiment around the vaccine patent discussion jumped to 56%, compared to 39% the previous week – a 44% increase in positive sentiment.

Moderna’s sentiment rating related to vaccine patents

Moderna’s sentiment rating the week after the company announced it wouldn’t enforce its vaccine patent.

Read the new guide for more information on these stories, other ways narrative intelligence can help you get ahead of risks and capitalize on opportunities, and tips for making your organization narrative-intelligent.