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Blog post
March 23, 2021

How social media influences the market: An analysis of the finance industry post-GameStop

There’s no doubt the GameStop saga caused quite a stir within the finance industry and beyond. From a communications perspective, I’d like to reflect on the reputation of the finance industry and what’s changed as a result of the incident. I’d also like to explore the sentiment towards different financial institutions.

It’s important to delineate between investment banks, hedge funds (including HFTs and other obscure finance organisations) and commercial banks. For all the flak that commercial banks get, on the whole, individual banks are pretty good at communicating with consumers, maintaining their reputation and avoiding healthy skepticism turning into outright criticism. 

The sentiment around GameStop

Both professionally and personally I am compelled to regularly read the comments under breaking news articles shared on social media, and no matter what the cause or issues, I cannot recall a single story’s response being so absolutely one-sided.

When Isentia did an analysis of social media conversation relating to the GameStop saga, it found 88% of comments expressed an opinion about the topic supported the insurgent Wall Street Bets group. Approximately 50% of comments expressed a clear statement that hedge funds were losing at their own game and deserved no sympathy. The positively gleeful schadenfreude at the losses sustained by the hedge funds unified groups that in any other contexts would be building strawmen to attack each other in a never-ending battle of replies. Commenters in support of Wall St Bets floated conspiracy theories of the Democratic Party’s and Joe Biden’s personal involvement, while others called for the beginning of a socialist revolution. Robinhood closing positions and restricting trading in GME united such disparate voices as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr., a potential dinner party for the ages that was cut short by AOC reminding Cruz of his role in the January 6th Capitol storming.

This reaction shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Recent real-life examples, like the GFC have built up doubt in financial institutions like hedge funds and investment banks, and cultural representations of these organisations tend to be negative.

Opinions of Wall Street

Looking at Hollywood films about investment bankers and hedge funds, we see a list of negative depictions; The Big Short, Wall Street: Greed is Good, Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call and American Psycho. Indeed, it’s hard to find a positive depiction of Wall Street and high finance with the possible exception of the Pursuit of Happyness. 

Opinions of ‘Wall Street’ in the 2017 US YouGov survey, found that 77% of people believed that “most people on Wall Street would be willing to harm consumers if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it”, 72% believed Wall St financiers were more greedy and selfish than regular people. By contrast, in 2018, only 66% of 18-24 year olds and 76% of 25-34 year olds said they have always believed the earth was round. Put another way, you would possibly have more success on social media, arguing for a theory of a flat earth, than you would for the idea that there are ethics on Wall Street. 

But none of this is new, those surveys are years old, people still talk about the open wounds of the GFC in 2008 and American Psycho was released in 2000. It may have ebbed and flowed at times, but movements like Occupy Wall Street didn’t feel like a response a single moment, but looked to address long-standing grievances. People have long been cynical about hedge funds and investment banks, and it doesn’t appear much has been done by the industry to improve the situation. Thought pieces on public relations and branding express exasperation with the financial services sector, generally acknowledging early in the text; ‘we know you don’t like it but here’s why you need it’, much like a dentist explaining flossing. 

And who could blame hedge funds and investment banks for being ignorant in the modern world of communications? They are non-consumer facing businesses. They don’t have issues like other non-consumer-facing businesses (mining companies) that regularly seek community and environmental project approvals and face a highly organised and powerful climate change movement. They also don’t have an easy story to tell. The mining sector’s blue-collar jobs and regional economies have a more convincing message than providing liquidity to financial markets and diversifying risk.

The power of social media

So if the reputation hasn’t changed why would we suddenly talk about it from a communications perspective? Because the consequences have changed. The power of social media and accessible trading platforms has meant that suddenly the poor reputation of these firms not only makes them a target for activist financial consequences, but also an entirely unsympathetic one (again, 88% of commenters on social media supported the actions of Wall Street Bets, and celebrated hedge fund losses). The question of regulating future market distortions such as GameStop is made politically complicated by this sentiment.

The other thing that’s changed; the messaging is clearer. People often distrusted Wall Street, but the usual attacks of income inequality and regulation tend to be murky and complicated. The frequent usage of the word democratisation is probably the most interesting development in the entire GameStop saga from a communication perspective.

What about regulation?

Anyone who has studied or read about behavioural economics and knows about experiments in the Dictator Game will readily understand there is an innate drive towards fairness in our dealings with others, and perceptions of unfairness encourage us to punish the perpetrators, even if it’s to our own detriment. Thus, generating a clear narrative of unfairness is a powerful tool to generate support for a cause. The traditional attacks of income inequality are often the flagship of anti-Wall Street or anti-finance messaging and are often blurred enough to create a reasonable level of debate. Even if everyone agrees that regulation isn’t working, surveys in the US show deep divides between whether people believe the problem is about not enough regulation, not adequate enforcement of existing regulation, or if it’s the wrong type of regulation. This disagreement makes it difficult to build a clear policy of reform.

Democratisation, however, feels like it is a more powerful and clearer message. Propelled into the limelight most clearly by the actions of Robinhood, it asks a question of fairness that is far harder to obscure or dispute. We can argue whether or not the game is rigged, but no one can deny it’s unfair if you’re not allowed to play.

What’s next for investment banks and hedge funds?

As a communications professional I am interested in the development of the narrative of democratisation and accessibility, and how those who support regulation in the post-GameStop era find ways to attack this sentiment. I am also interested to see how investment banks and hedge funds respond. They’re clearly starting with a difficult story to tell. While none of this has been a problem before, they now need to find a way to communicate with the wider public, particularly young people. They also need to shift a narrative that has existed for decades if not longer. In this partisan era one might avoid consequences from the antipathy of either progressives or conservatives, but the concentrated and focused antipathy of both, united by a simple and powerful message, is something to be concerned about.

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