Revolutionary Measures

If a tree falls on Twitter……

The launch of CNN, back in 1980, ushered in the era of the 24 hour rolling news cycle. No longer did people have to wait for their morning papers or the 10pm TV news to find out what was happening in the world. And this had an impact on the news itself – rather than having to schedule events and press conferences to fit around journalists’ schedules, organisations could be confident that reporters would be available (and coverage would result) pretty much throughout the day. On the flipside unscrupulous PRs couldn’t try and sneak out bad news, knowing that it was just too late for print deadlines and would be out of date 24 hours later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The internet obviously accelerated the news cycle, making it even faster and more constant. You didn’t need to be watching CNN or other 24 hours news channels to see the latest stories, opening up access to everyone with a smartphone. It also allowed a wider range of media to reach people – you didn’t need to be a TV station or a major newspaper to break a story, you could be a citizen journalist or simply someone who was in the same place as a breaking news story. Essentially this democratised the reporting process. It became difficult for governments and corporations to spike negative stories as, hydra-headed, they simply popped up elsewhere.

We’re now in the midst of the next news cycle, focused on social media. As soon as something happens it is pored over on Twitter and Facebook, with both the public and experts giving their views. If previous news cycles were one reporter/media outlet to many readers or viewers this is essentially any to any – going beyond democracy to the text book definition of anarchy (‘without a ruler’).

In many ways this is a good thing, as it opens up the debate to multiple voices, many of whom have traditionally not been heard. But it drives three big issues that I believe threaten the integrity of how we get the information that shapes our world view and actions:

1. Who do you trust?
Major news organisations have a brand that their readers/viewers trust. They know what to expect when reading a story on The Sun compared to the Daily Mirror or the New York Times compared to Fox News. However, in the anarchic world of social media anyone can post ‘news’ or comments that are inaccurate or knowingly untrue. This fake news can be mischievous, misleading or designed to push a specific agenda, and is very hard to stamp out in the instant world of the internet. And the rise of fake news risks people tarring every news organisation with the same brush – we’ve all seen politicians describing as ‘fake’ stories that they simply disagree with.

2. Who shouts loudest, gets heard
Whether it is the distance that social media provides, polarisation of views or simply that the world is getting nastier, the amount of abuse and trolling on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook seems to be ever-increasing. Just this week Viscount St. Davids was found guilty of making menacing communications against Gina Miller, who led a legal challenge that forced the government to consult Parliament on Brexit. Amongst other abuse he offered £5,000 in a Facebook post to anyone that would run over Ms Miller. Parliament itself is holding a debate on the abuse suffered by MPs and candidates of both parties in the recent election campaign.

What seems to typify all of these communications is that people appear happy to say things online that they wouldn’t to someone’s face, and that very often it involves men abusing women, often in sexual terms, for daring to disagree with their views. The sheer weight of such trolling stifles honest debate and ultimately puts people off sharing their thoughts and opinions, or even self-censoring what they write.

3. Knee jerk reactions lead to instant actions
When stories break the true facts are often unclear. Whereas traditional news organisations would then take the time to research events and wouldn’t jump to conclusions the opposite is true on social media. People make immediate judgements and share them with the world, and the sheer force of tweets and messages can then shape the news agenda. A case in point is the recent disqualification of cyclist Peter Sagan from the Tour de France, for his involvement in a crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the race. The race jury first gave him a lesser punishment, but then seemed to be swayed by the force of anti-Sagan anger on social media, changing their minds and throwing him out of the race. Taking time to study events in more detail would have led to a less knee jerk reaction, but it often feels that people believe they have to react instantly, without the full facts, leading to decisions that don’t necessarily stand up to future scrutiny.

The social media news cycle has undoubtedly delivered major benefits – it helped drive the Arab Spring for example. But its sheer anarchy means that everyone, from politicians and PRs to the general public, needs to think before they tweet if we are to have a fair, honest and unbiased discussion of news on social media.

Photo: By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments