Revolutionary Measures

Fake news – are we on the road to 1984?

For a term that most people hadn’t heard of 18 months ago, fake news is now mainstream. A simple Google search on the term turns up 145,000,000 results, 28,900,000 in the news section. Originally coined to cover clickbait stories written with the intent to mislead for political or financial gain, it has now been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump, one of its key beneficiaries, to describe any story that he disagrees with.

Donald Trump

Misleading the public has always been a tactic used by leaders, with propaganda used to push a particular point of view, especially in times of war. Additionally, many newspapers have run sensational stories to attract readers – witness the New York Sun publishing stories about life on the moon in 1835.

George Orwell’s 1984 shows how the combination of propaganda and mass-media communications can be used to control the population and condition what they actually think and believe. And for those that dismiss that as a fantasy, I’d say that fake news in the digital age actually goes even further, for three reasons:

1. We live in an ungated world
In the past people got their news from a limited range of sources such as newspapers, TV and radio. All of these employed professional journalists to sift and check facts before they reached their audiences. This meant that while they may have been biased to left or right, or even stretch the truth, they had to meet journalistic standards. Now, in the digital world anyone can be a publisher, without needing any training – opinions and stories go direct to the public, particularly through social media, without any guarantee of quality. At the same time trust in traditional institutions (politicians, journalists and companies) has broken down, meaning people are actively looking at other sources for their information.

2. We live in a polarised world
Social media encourages people to cluster with those of similar beliefs, limiting our world view and therefore reinforcing it. During the European Referendum, for example, liberal Remainers just saw tweets supporting their stance on Twitter, leading to a sense of real shock when the result went the other way. When we’re in our bubbles on social media we’re more likely to click on, forward or believe in fake news if it plays to our particular beliefs – especially if it appears to be endorsed by someone we trust.

3. We live in a world with short attention spans
How many times have you seen a headline, read it but not bothered to click through for the full story? In my case pretty often. There simply doesn’t seem time to read news stories in-depth or in-detail. At the same time attention spans are shortening and people quickly move onto the next thing, meaning it is easy to confuse fake and real news.

So what can be done to fight fake news? It is easy to blame Facebook and its algorithms, shadowy websites that make money through adverts that run alongside fake stories or even politicians such as Donald Trump who know exactly the lies that they are peddling. However, I think responsibility goes further than this:

  • PR people and the companies they represent have to think through the stories that they issue – putting a positive spin on something is one thing, but be sure that you’re not crossing the line into untruths.
  • Politicians need to be more careful in what they say – perhaps backed up by an independent regulator that immediately investigates and pronounces on dubious statistics, such as the alleged £350m per week paid to the EU that was splashed on Vote Leave buses during the referendum.
  • As consumers we need to learn that not everything you read online is true, and that we are not in a cosy world where every story is meticulously fact-checked. We need to look for sources, think before we share and broaden our world views to try and understand the wider context of the new reality.

Otherwise the fake news we’ve seen already will just be the start, and we’ll be moving swiftly down the road to a version of 1984 that sees propaganda winning and trust between groups and communities completely disappearing. And that is in no-one’s long term interest – not even Donald Trump’s.

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June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment