Russell Shepherd: Intersecting digital media and social influence
MANILA, Philippines – As Rappler’s data scientist, Russell Shepherd works one of the sexy jobs of the digital age, and it involves a lot of statistics. But his analytical leanings, he admitted, transcend math for math’s sake. It is a means to an end.
“Statistics and all these other seemingly esoteric fields – economics, natural language processing, and social network analysis – are actually just very practical tools for understanding many of today's problems,” Shepherd said.
Journalists are among the main users of social media, leveraging it for engagement, live coverage, and real-time feedback. The barrage of information through the years would be overwhelming, giving rise to the need for existing data to make sense for public storytellers. It is this gap that Shepherd fills, as he crunches data and points to the possibilities journalists can do with them.
Among his most visible output are the Twitter maps on two significant nationwide events: during the last day of trial of impeached Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012; and the May 2013 mid-term elections.
Yet it took him years of study and practice outside the Philippines, in arenas intersecting digital at its dawn, to hone his skills and craft.
From counter-terrorism to digital marketing
Shepherd draws from his experience at the Carter Center, a non-governmental group founded by former US president Jimmy Carter. In 2013, he helped map emerging jihadist circles in Syria and understand their influence through their social media activities – as part of the Syria Mapping Conflict project.
“I consulted with them on social network construction and analysis, and contributed the first set of reports that were received by [US Secretary of State] John Kerry,” he shared.
Likewise, with a stint as a research assistant for the CORE Lab at the Naval Postgraduate School, Shepherd immersed himself in the study of social science phenomena. It was there that he met Maria Ressa, Rappler CEO and Executive Editor, who was a visiting scholar at the time.
Shepherd talks about his awareness of Ressa’s expertise in terrorism, with which he could fuse his portfolio of substantial research. He would pack his bags, bring his family to the country, and join Rappler full time in 2013. “Maria and I share a common background in using social network analysis to study social movement and conflict,” Shepherd added.
The birth of Reach
As Shepherd was able to harness the power of social media to make an impact on the peace process, why not build algorithms that would translate to change in how businesses add value to society?
Seeking to bring actionable intelligence to the real world, Shepherd founded Reach together with Ressa. At its core, the partnership recognizes social media as a high-speed platform for engagement and possibly, transformation in consumers’ collective behavior.
By standing at the intersection between digital media and social movements, Reach offers less of metrics and more of a strategic and tactical approach to marketing and communications. It is time to go beyond the numbers, as Shepherd would have it.
“Marketing teams love the approach for understanding online audiences and making great campaigns,” Shepherd shared. “Brands use it for a range of tasks including competitive analysis and crisis management.”
Social media is a gold mine, a platform to observe how ideas and emotions spread. And through the applications of statistics and other seemingly esoteric fields, the potential force for spreading a message is defined.
“The core concept behind all of these applications is understanding and leveraging online communities and individual influencers within these communities.” In plying through the evolving world of digital, Shepherd is armed in solving problems with the toolset he has been building over time.
A freelance business writer, Shadz Loresco follows stories on entrepreneurs, technology, and finance. Her background includes 5 years of writing and editing for online business-to-business (B2B) marketing and reputation management.