Fake news and truth, what really matters?

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.

Nefarious Actors

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.

Missionville Update: 359 sold, 39 reviews

After twelve weeks since publication, I wanted to provide a quick update on how Missionville is doing.

All sales are through Amazon, whether it’s for the paperback or kindle version.

In total, 359 copies of Missionville have been sold, three quarters of those sales are for the paperback.

The majority of sales have come through amazon.com (the US market), but a few have come from .co.uk (where I now live) and .ca (Canada, where I worked at Woodbine for two years).

So far, the book has received thirty-seven 5 star reviews and two 4 star review. Thirty of these reviews are on the .com site, five are on the .co.uk site, and four are on the .ca site.

A reminder to anyone who has purchased the book, e-mail me your mailing address to alexbr4cornwall@gmail.com, I’ll send you a book postcard, personalized and signed.

For a glance at the book, here is an excerpt: Missionville, Chapter 4

Missionville update: 195 sold, 20 5 star reviews

After six weeks since publication, I wanted to provide a quick update on how Missionville is doing.

All sales are through Amazon, whether it’s for the paperback or kindle version.

In total, 195 copies of Missionville have been sold, three quarters of those sales are for the paperback.

The majority of sales have come through amazon.com (the US market), but a few have come from .co.uk (where I now live) and .ca (Canada, where I worked at Woodbine for two years).

So far, the book has received twenty 5 star reviews. Thirteen of these reviews are on the .com site, four are on the .co.uk site, and three are on the .ca site.

Oddly, Amazon removed one 5 star review, for reasons I am not sure. Unfortunately I don’t know the source of the review.

I am now starting to think about tactics to try to make the most of the holiday buying season. This includes possible Facebook ads, as well as a post card campaign.

For a glance at the book, here is an excerpt: Missionville, Chapter 4

More on Missionville

Book excerpt: Missionville: Chapter 4

What do you want to accomplish with Missionville?
I wanted to use fiction to further my passion for horses, and the welfare of horses. Missionville basically illustrates the horse racing industry at its lower-end. I don’t think this has been exhaustively covered in other fiction, with a few exceptions.

But I also wanted to show that not everyone in the industry is bad, nor is everyone good. I hope the interactions that Amanda has, with some of the horsemen on the backside, are a good illustration of this. I also try to show that we are a product of our environment, and it’s our environment, in this case the racetrack and its rules, that helps dictate our behavior.

Tell us more about Missionville, the place.
Missionville is a racetrack, in a town by the same name, which is a small fictional town in rural Pennsylvania. Missionville, the town, used to be a thriving mining community through to the mid-80s. The mining plant has since closed, and many local jobs have gone with it.

The town has its own newspaper, the Missionville Times; its circulation has been hit heavily by the flight of its population to larger cities on the east coast, as well as a result of the internet. The town also has a bar that is popular with the racetrack crowd, Jessup’s. It has a good Italian restaurant, Zucchini’s, a local bank, gas station, and a drug store. Most other businesses have either closed down or left.

The racetrack has steadily declined over the years, despite getting a casino license eight years ago. Not many people attend the races. Life on the backside is tough, with many horsemen barely surviving from pay check to pay check. The racetrack bar, Poker’s, which is adjacent to the paddock, is where the racetrack guys tend to hang out, when at the races.

Missionville is about an hour’s drive from Owenscreek, a market town, which hosts a horse auction each Tuesday afternoon. Sometimes, thoroughbreds from Missionville are sold through this auction.

What inspired your settings in Missionville?
I have worked at Missionville, but it’s not a fictionalization of one particular track I worked at; it’s a combination of Penn National (there’s a bar adjacent to the paddock at Penn National, for example), Woodbine (at least two characters are based on people I met at Woodbine), Sam Houston Race Park, Presque Isle Downs, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

I have visited Owenscreek on a number of occasions, but it’s not a fictionalization of one particular auction; it’s a combination of Sugarcreek, OH, OLEX, Waterloo, CA, New Holland, PA, and Shipshewana, IN.

The Missionville Times is based off my experience with the Cecil Whig. The local bank, where Amanda works, is based off my own bank in the United States, Cecil Bank. Zucchini’s is oddly a lovely Italian restaurant, just outside of Gweek, in Cornwall, UK.

Who is Pete?
Pete’s a good looking guy, so he’s not me! But there is a piece of me in Pete, in terms of how his character evolves. Like Pete, I was pretty oblivious of the plight of horses, once they were no longer in my care. Like Pete, once I more fully realized their plight, I tried to make a difference. A few of my friends – if they read the book – might see a little of themselves in Pete, that’s not coincidental.

Who is Amanda?
Amanda represents the many people who work on the off-track side, rehabbing or retiring racehorses. There are many organizations and people committed to this work.

Why write the book?
Honestly, I thought writing fiction would be an interesting challenge. Most of my writing, to date, has been non-fiction. So I enrolled in a local course for creative writing, I also joined a local writers’ group. I learned some of the essence of writing fiction, and then embarked on this journey.

Missionville is available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca

Praise for Missionville

Missionville: a horse racing novel

Missionville is available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca

“There are two versions of horse racing in the American narrative: the sunny version where everyone loves their horses like children and a stakes win is just a dream away, and the dark clouds version where every horse is marked for death from the day it is foaled, handled by so-called horsemen who couldn’t care less as long as there’s a pay check. Naturally the truth lays well in-between. In Missionville, racing insider Alex Brown tells it like it is: a deeply flawed industry where even passionate horsemen and women can be dragged down by a tough lifestyle, hopeless options, and sheer hard luck. Unflinching and yet not overwrought, this book lays bare a fractured world of horses, the people who love them, and the people who exploit them, which somehow isn’t yet beyond redemption.”
-Natalie Keller Reinert, Author of Turning for Home

“Alex Brown, a lifelong horseman, takes you on a journey few are capable of providing, to life on the backside of a hardscrabble Pennsylvania racetrack, showing the pressures that bear on both the horses and the humans, and the possibilities for it all going off the track. He takes you to the real underbelly of the sport. He gives you characters you can root for as they face moral dilemmas. He tells a good tale while he’s giving you the tour. A terrific read.”
–Mike Jensen, journalist, Philadelphia Inquirer, winner of an Eclipse Award

“Behind the grandeur and pageantry of American horse racing there is a dark secret playing out. Author Alex Brown transports his readers to rural Pennsylvania, where heart-pounding action and heartbreak intertwine at the Missionville Racetrack. A captivating read, Missionville excels in its narrative of love, life – and death – on the racetrack’s backside.”
–Jordan Schatz, Sports Editor, Cecil Whig

“Alex Brown’s Missionville takes an unwavering look at a beloved sport. You probably remember Brown’s affecting writing about Barbaro, the doomed 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, and here he takes on a portrait of a downtrodden fictional racetrack. Brown writes with a true insider’s understanding of the depth of passion that people have for horses and watching them run. It isn’t an easy read—slaughter, drugs, and real desperation are all here—but Missionville gives readers a compelling look into the simultaneously troubled and beautiful world of horse racing.”
-Eliza McGraw, Author of Here Comes Exterminator!

“Set at the Missionville Racetrack, this novel is a close-up look at the backside culture at a racetrack that lets us in on the worries, triumphs, and concerns for the horses that are at the mercies of their owners. This is a fast-paced read that is educational as well as entertaining.”
–Shelley Mickle, author of Barbaro and American Pharoah

“An intriguing horse mystery written by someone who obviously knows the industry. A great mix of horse knowledge, racing highlights, romance and an inside scoop on the controversial slaughtering of retired racehorses.”
–Christine Meunier, author of the Thoroughbred Breeders series

“While bringing such rich life to the largely hidden world of Missionville Racetrack, Alex Brown turns an unflinching eye on the modern horse racing industry, its flaws along with its many virtues. A must read for anyone with even a passing interest in the sport.”
–Dan Ross, journalist with bylines in Newsweek and the Guardian

“Missionville is a fast-paced read that grips the reader from the start and provides a ride that is both eye-opening and entertaining. It’s not easy to make the seedy underground network that drives horse racing and horse slaughter entertaining, but Brown manages to pull it off with vivid characters and a gripping storyline. In the end, he presents no easy answers for the complexities of the issue, but leaves the reader with hope for the future of the nation’s horses. Highly recommend; a great piece of work.”
–Sharon Boeckle, filmmaker, director and producer, From the Kill Pen

“Alex Brown is a prominent opponent of horse slaughter whose blog posts about Barbaro held the Kentucky Derby winner’s fans in thrall as the colt struggled, and ultimately failed, to recover from a broken leg. Brown’s fans will be glad to see his byline again, this time on a novel that reports from one of Thoroughbred racing’s low rungs: the fictional Missionville Racetrack in Pennsylvania, where denizens of the track confront, and sometimes challenge, their own moral decay in a world where horses are used, discarded, and ‘disappear’ into the slaughter pipeline, even as others try to adhere to their love for the animals and protect them from such a fate. Brown’s first effort as a novelist provides a rare insight into the little-covered nuts and bolts of how horses once considered valuable can end up in a dreadful situation, as well as the thought processes of the people who put them there, the people who come to question those decisions, and those who work to change a world where desperation can lead to serious moral peril. It is a bleak tale, but not without a few happy endings, some human redemption, and an education for the reader.”
–Glenye Cain Oakford, author of The Home Run Horse

Missionville is fiction based on fact, but don’t think Alex Brown’s book in any way exaggerates or distorts the truth to make it more sensationalist, far from it. Brown has worked in the industry and knows at first-hand what goes on. Brown tells it like it is, and tells it very well.”
–Will Jones, author of The Black Horse Inside Coolmore

“I could not put it down. It is a riveting read, a thrilling equine literary ride. Alex Brown illustrates a realistic narrative of the racing world culture and paints a wonderful landscape of the backside dynamics. Brown’s book also provides a clear lens into the equine slaughter pipeline.”
–Kristen Halverson, author of A Horse’s Magical Neigh

“Alex Brown provides an authentic insight into what lies beneath the glamour of horse racing. Brown holds a mirror up to a disturbing side of the horse industry, exposing deep flaws and depraved deeds.”
–Caitlin Taylor, OTTB Designs

American Pharoah completes final Belmont workout: Triple Crown challenge next

American Pharoah completed his final breeze on Monday morning at Churchill Downs, ahead of his attempt to win the Triple Crown this Saturday at Belmont Park.

How good was the work? Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form, who scrutinizes works for the big races, and is not afraid to call it what it is, headlined his tweet: “American Pharoah… WOW!! His quick report included,

“Hard to find any better description for AMERICAN PHAROAH’s performance this morning.”

The further American Pharoah went, the more Welsch was impressed.

Here is the workout, on YouTube:

Can American Pharoah become the twelfth horse to win the Triple Crown, the first horse to win the series since Affirmed in 1978? Thirteen horses have won the first two legs of the series, only to falter at the final leg, since Affirmed defeated Alydar. Certainly, this horse seems in a different class to his peers at this stage of their careers, but he also appears to be much more than that.