‘Fake news’ isn’t even news any more. Donald Trump is right in one way: as online ‘news’ sites proliferate daily, and the regulations lag behind the times, fake news is a reality. So, it’s important to think about which news sites you can trust and what to do if you suspect a ‘fact’ isn’t true. And since, in the fight for attention, news and advertising are inextricably linked (finding news is a big reason your target audience picks up their phone and sees your brand) we all have responsibilities as we market a brand.
Ever-smarter technology means the rise of the citizen journalist. The most motivated citizen ‘publisher’ will be the one with the strongest views or the one most determined to attract high traffic with clickbait sensationalism. Obviously in the traditional news companies the old model of newsrooms and editors still exists, and most of those do apply the professional rigour of fact-checking, balance of coverage and corroboration… but everywhere else people can simply go around it: anyone can publish a convincing-looking story. Lawmakers are way behind and base the regulation on the newsroom model where owners, publishers and reporters are traceable. But outside main channels the new ‘lawmakers’ are of course the algorithms and policies within big-name tech companies – and neither system is perfect so it’s always worth checking the validity of sources. As former US Senator Daniel Moynihan said, ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.’
I’m actually quite comfortable with giving more power to people and their phones and nuisance ‘misinformation’ at this level is fairly easy to spot. Websites like fullfact.org can be very helpful on checking bigger stories if you’re unclear. But as we were reminded recently by Benedikt Vangeli, Interior Minister and Director for Anti-terrorism for the Czech Republic at our recent PROI event in Prague, there’s another level, which is active disinformation: complex and deliberate campaigns by groups or governments to sow disharmony at home or abroad by highlighting discord, or trying to undermine trust in high-profile people and organisations. Propaganda like this has always happened when countries are adversaries. It may be far more sophisticated and quietly prevalent today, but the goal is the same as always – to fabricate or amplify the convenient news, discredit inconvenient stories and undermine the trust in their sources.
Countries are of course carefully curated brands – think what words outsiders would associate with North Korea or Hungary, with New Zealand before and after the mosque shootings, or with the UK in our current Brexit turmoil. Yet according to a report by researchers at Oxford university 70 countries experienced organised disinformation campaigns in 2018 - and one of the major players in the global disinformation order is China.
As I write this, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong continue their actions. Apple appears to have angered Beijing recently and suddenly removed HK Map Live from its app store after just a week. The app’s crowd-powered mapping allowed Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to track the movements of police (shown as a dog emoji, an anti-police insult widely used by protesters) so it in Apple’s view ‘endanger[ed] law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong’. The New York Times also reports that brands ranging from the NBA to Tiffany’s have been required to apologise and seen other direct consequences following recent campaigns or tweets from staff which Chinese mainlanders saw as supporting the Hong Kong protests. And interestingly, the Oxford University report claims that “in 2019 the Chinese government began to employ global social media platforms to portray Hong Kong’s democracy advocates as violent radicals with no popular appeal.”
So, we have to ask questions: are social media platforms creating space for public deliberation and democracy, or are they amplifying content that keeps citizens addicted, disinformed and angry? There’s a balancing act or an irony here: as brand owners we want to stand out for the right reasons but we need to act fast if our brand is somehow associated with any disinformation, and while a few brave and singular brands would choose to create links with visible protests or other communications that polarise political opinion, most would do the opposite.
And while we’re quite skilled at helping out when there’s a crisis, we prefer to focus on the positive. That means reducing the circle and learning who to trust: our practice at KISS is to spend time focusing in on your target viewer and reader, then finding small groups of influencers and journalists who are seen by that target. The days of ‘spray and pray’ releases are long over. When we work directly with that small group, we enhance the chances of the right coverage, we seek ongoing dialogue for you and we reduce the chances of your ad or story appearing somewhere unsuitable, irrelevant or downright risky.