I spent several months researching to answer the question, why does disinformation spread, and how critical is this issue to our general discourse and to politics and fair elections, among other topics? The result of these months is a 15,000 word essay, Weaponizing the Internet. This is version 1.0, published on March 19, 2003.
Included in this essay are conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate, and the rise of alt-right sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars. I discuss how Trump exploited this environment, and how foreign powers are able to exploit our own rules for freedom of speech while maintaining a tight control of censorship at home. I also discuss how we are inherently lazy, and our needs to belong. And I note how the algorithms of social media platforms conspire to elevate disinformation.
I have written about the importance of authenticity and transparency for brands in the era of digital, and coined the term, “free marketing” space. Free relates to freedom of speech, the notion that customers are no longer only influenced by a brand’s voice, but also by its customers’ feedback and reviews; thus, the truth really matters. Customers now easily express themselves, for all to read, based on their direct experiences with a brand. Offer a great experience, get a thoughtful, personal, five-star review. Short-change your customer and lookout!
What does this mean for us marketers? It means we need to try to provide an outstanding brand experience, at all times. Any missteps need to be handled with due care, and out in the open.
This sounds like an era of truth, where truth to the brand experience is paramount. So how can we rationalize this with the explosion of “fake news“?
Several aspects of this freedom brought on by the internet contrive to also create circumstances where fake news, disinformation, flourishes.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech, which is enshrined in western democracies, also mean that anyone can speak, and speak about what they want, with only limited recourse; essentially, opinions can become more important than facts, if you repeat them often enough.
So while freedom of speech has been a very positive result of the internet, in terms of allowing customers to fully engage in the dialogue around brand experiences in the free marketing space, freedom of speech has also allowed nefarious actors (that can deploy a variety of troll mechanisms) to use those same freedoms to express their points of view. Essentially, the internet has provided them a fertile platform to spread their content far and wide.
While the free marketing space allows consumers to easily share their opinions and feedback, it has also allowed Fake News websites to share their content. Sites like Infowars, Revolver and Breitbart share their stories and help provide substance to conspiracy theories that support the Anti-Vax community or QAnon. This content, and their corresponding communities, exist not only on traditional social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, but on more permissive channels such as 4Chan, Gab, Reddit and Telegram, where anonymity and freedom of speech are taken to extremes. To add to this mix, fake bots and fake profiles can amplify the content, making the content appear to be more engaging. (As an aside, Google seems to have done a much better job of eliminating “black hat” techniques in search optimization, than social media platforms are doing in the free marketing space.)
And it all goes viral more easily
There is also another interesting aspect of digital marketing at play: viral marketing. When you create a piece of content that is shocking, absurd, or humorous, it has a greater chance of going viral (read Jonah Berger for more insights into what pre-conditions are necessary to improve the likelihood of content going viral).
Untruths are more likely to be shocking, thus untruths (disinformation) will have an exaggerated share of voice in the digital landscape. When untruths support a point of view, or a set of values of an individual, you have a cocktail ready to stoke the engine of viral growth, and willing nodes ready to share those untruths (even if unwittingly, in many cases).
This sharing and engagement of fake news is exacerbated by the business models of social media platforms that focus on advertising, which means clicks. Clicks that are optimized by the hungry, and ever improving, algorithms.
And we want to belong
As human beings, we want to belong. We want to belong to groups that share our beliefs, our values, our passions. These communities can be offline, and they can be online, too. The groups we join are groups about which we can become passionate. They have a group identity, and we seek to support that, as they support, and reinforce our existing beliefs.
For some, social identity can become a source of strength and superiority, and outsiders to the group can be seen to be blamed for their problems. It’s this type of groupthink that leads to confirmation bias and echo chambers; we start to only see content and posts from those who share our beliefs, whether it’s within a specific online group, or on our own Facebook feed.
The content we see is augmented and reinforced by related conspiracy theories that are not grounded in truth, but support the ideals of our shared beliefs. Group members believe in the disinformation, because they want to believe, and have the motivations to believe in the information. They are also incentivized to share the information; it provides them social currency within their group, and the immediate reward of likes and comments increases the incentives to spread falsehoods.
The internet has certainly exacerbated this phenomenon, and as long as there are leaders willing to share and spread disinformation that support a group identity, these groups will grow more entrenched in their beliefs.
So can brands fake it, too?
So how does fake news and disinformation impact the digital marketing of brands? Do brands really need to extol the truth in their brand messaging, or can brands, too, fake it?
If a brand’s community relies on a false narrative, trust between the community members and the brand will inevitably erode. A false narrative that supports an individual’s beliefs, and membership of their group, won’t have that same effect. It’s designed to further cement that relationship.
These two types of communities are different. The former is centered around the profit motive of the brand, a key part of the exchange. The latter provides the individual a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals. The former is a fragile relationship, forever being contested by free marketing economics. The latter doesn’t have the same level of competition for beliefs and values.
Communities that focus on shared beliefs, values and passions do not have this singular focus on one actor in the exchange relationship; they are more egalitarian in form, and thus the shared values of the communities support the entire community values, rather than overly benefit one actor within the community.
As consumers, we are therefore generally more passionate about our values, beliefs and ideology, than we are about the brands that we admire. Thus we have more incentive to spread messaging that focuses on those beliefs, values and passions.
Contrarily, brands need to stick to the truth of the brand experience they provide to maintain and strengthen their communities; if they don’t, the blow back on social media (and review sites) will be harsh; review IKEA’s social media channels for examples, customer complaints litter the comments of even the most beautiful posts.
Brands can focus some of their content marketing on the values of their customers, values that support their customers’ beliefs, if they want to seek out a cohort of customers who may be willing to share that content. However, critical to this strategy is that the values shared must be core to the brand’s DNA, the brand’s truth. Nike is an example of a brand that does this well; it can engage in the BLM conversations, for example, because it has a history with this movement, not least, with Colin Kaepernick.
For politics and social issues, we need to figure out how to better incentivize truth; unlike brands, they don’t have customers demanding their truth.