In the opening half of 2017, there has been no hotter topic or buzzier buzz word in America than fake news. As social media experts and marketers, it’s important that we understand the implications of this phenomenon on both American culture and our industry at large.
What I feel to be the greatest implication of all of this craziness is how content creates culture – and vice versa.
Think about it. It’s obvious. Just look back into the year 2016. The advancement of the hyper partisan divide. The radicalization (right and left) of our acquaintances on Facebook. The meteoric rise of the alt-right. This is all central to American culture and this is all a direct result of content. Let’s take a look at the hows and the whys.
American Gullibility = Easy Money
The issue of fake news begins with the simple fact that a good deal of people have no idea what exactly it is or how/where it is conceptualized. Now, we’re at the point where our president and his administration are trying to channel the fake news conversation to his advantage through publicly declaring that negative reports about him are fake news. More on paranoia later. But for now:
CNN is not fake news. The New York Times is not fake news. Fake news is not something that comes from any of these titans of mass media that have been around for decades, centuries, or more. Fake news is a direct result of the recent boom in the average American’s access to technology.
It comes from regular people like you and me.
Fake news can come from Macedonian teenagers in their parents’ basements trying to make a quick buck on website ad revenue, as was reported by BuzzFeed News. The more website clicks, the more revenue. The more sensationalized and fabricated the headline, the more website clicks. Duh.
According to the report, there was nothing more easily sensationalized than political content surrounding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Articles like “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought’” racked up hundreds of thousands of clicks in less than a week.
Why though? Americans surely couldn’t have been that gullible, right? Wrong. This study from PBS actually suggests that the human brain “loves” fake news. Not only does it reaffirm and embolden our belief systems, but in written form rather than oral, it’s allegedly “satirical” nature becomes more deeply indistinguishable from reality. The “satire” in turn becomes reality for that reader.
“If people were smarter, fake news wouldn’t be a problem,” the author asserts.
That and the fact that anyone, anywhere with a computer can publish anything they want, claiming it to be true, is a dangerous combination.
The Content Divide
With this extreme oversaturation of this sensationalized content comes a culture crisis. The worsening political divide in America today speaks directly to this. For any radicalized belief system, outrageous conspiracy, or ingenuine agenda comes a “satirical” piece of content to push it. That is, at least, what we saw in the election year of 2016.
In 2017, the topic of this epidemic enters the mainstream conversation. More people are becoming cognizant of the issue at hand. Although – as previously stated – many are understanding the “what” and the “why” of it in different ways, ultimately continuing to feed the epidemic by using it to fight with and against each other. From that, comes one main thing:
~ Paranoia ~
We’re paranoid now. From the bottom of our society to the top. The president of the country himself is claiming stories for be “fake news” on a regular basis. The term, the idea, and the general paranoia surrounding it are now commonplace.
Americans have become hyper aware of the issue – whether they understand it as CNN or some piece of clickbait that pops up on Outbrain. In the digital age, watching what content we consume is as important as watching what food and beverages we consume.
To go back to the original point, “how content creates culture” – on the large scale, that’s not even really the issue anymore. Because content isn’t just shaping our perception of reality. Americans have become so ingrained in the internet and media that content is our reality. Like those food and beverages we so often consume, our content is a monumental part of American culture.
The Importance of Transparency
So what is the point of all this? You get it. Fake news happens because people are gullible and don’t check their sources and everyone can write, publish, and advertise whatever they want anymore.
But we should care as advertisers – especially working projects for clients who are walking on thin ice with consumers as it is. There is something to be said about the value of truth in media and transparency in digital advertising, both ethically and, of course, because we’re living in the wake of a massive fake news epidemic in which everyone is feeling that the American people are being duped by the media.
The time for transparency is now. In a divided nation, just about the only common ground holding strong is some form of disdain for the media. It may be wise for brands to take a hard look at this and realize it could be exactly what they needed rather that a tough situation.
While, of course, fake news sites can be a threat as far as cannibalizing the ad revenue for brands that rely on a steady stream of content distribution to market their business, it’s also a chance for brands to capitalize on the paranoia through transparency and establishing themselves as a verifiable, reliable source of information in a pool of otherwise sketchy links.
The idea is to give people one less thing that they need to feel duped about.
This brand may have questionable customer service at best, but at least they are being straightforward with us online, transparent in their corporate intentions, and accessible in their content from the top to bottom level of the company – unlike most every other brand.
There are a number of cases in which the strategy of corporate transparency has ultimately proved to be a successful one. Find examples here, here, and here. In a time that we are becoming increasingly oversaturated with content by the day, I think we’ll see that, going forward, this idea of truth and accessibility will prove more successful than ever.