Social media may have played a more significant role behind closed doors in the United Auto Workers (UAW) union negotiations. As those negotiations have proceeded — including newly-announced walkouts at GM and Ford — union members might not have a sense of what sort of discussions their leaders were having around the table. However, members of the union, and the corporations the union is challenging, received what purported to be a look behind the curtain when screenshots from a private social media group were leaked to the media.

“The news of the leaks highlights the increasing role that social media communications can play in negotiations that used to take place behind closed doors,” said Mike Horning, associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Tech’s School of Communication. “All social platforms can now play a disruptive role in those processes and can even influence how those negotiations play out.”

Horning answered questions about the role such leaks can serve moving forward.

Q: Were the leaks from the private chat in X (formerly known as Twitter) helpful or harmful to the UAW cause?

“The leaks can be looked at in two ways. They provide automakers with some ammunition to argue that the UAW hasn't been serious about the negotiations. And they can observe that these leaks suggest that negotiations haven't been done in good faith. But these leaks also show that there may have been an intended strategy on the part of the UAW all along to draw negotiations out for what they say as the best results.”

Q: Are these leaks consistent with a new role for social media in union negotiations?

“It's an interesting case study on how social media might be used to circumvent traditional means of communication in a union. Normally negotiations happen behind closed doors and workers aren't aware of the larger tactics being used. However, the leaked messages perhaps provide rallying points for UAW workers, letting them know of long-term plans for the strikes, to be systematically disruptive, creating chaos and confusion for automakers.”  

Q: Could there be anything strategic about the content of the leaks?

“It’s difficult to know whether those leaks were intentional or not. The UAW has said publicly that it would make its negotiations public, which isn't typically how such things are done. That indicates that they would use new strategies in their bargaining. So in that sense, using social media to leak messages that could influence public opinion, especially those of union workers, may be part of that process.”

Q: Do the leaks highlight any particular dangers for media group communications?

“Any internal communications that are taking place on a social platform will be susceptible to leaks, so anyone using such methods should have a strategy for dealing with them when they occur.”  

About Horning   

Mike Horning is an associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communication. His research examines how communication technologies impact social attitudes and behaviors, with a current focus on the impact of “fake news” and misinformation on our democratic processes. His expertise has been featured in The Hill, on Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in a number of other media outlets. Read more about him here. 

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