“If it’s trending on Twitter then it must be true…”
Sorry to have tell you Kellyanne, but ‘fake news’ has been around for hundreds of years. Then, somebody in a village, (possibly also with too much time on their hands) made up a story about a lord or a group of people or an individual, who were, say. not to be trusted or were bad people! The story would get repeated around the village until it had been repeated so many times that it became its own truth.
Society seems to believe that the more a story gets shared, the more gravitas there is to it being a truth. Gossiping, spreading half-truths, trolling and creating enough divisiveness to cause isolation of certain groups or individuals – nothing changes. It’s not the nicer side to being a human being.
More sinister is how this behavior has become one of the underlying significance of what is trending on social media and what is has come to represent. With no editorial control, anyone can publish a story. And the more a story gets liked, the more it gets read and the more it gets shared. By the time it reaches critical mass and a million people have read and liked it, well, it has to be true, doesn’t it? But where does the responsibility lie with the search for the truth?
As an industry, advertising has its very strict self-regulating ad standards as do journalists. Mark Zuckerberg and his peers on other platforms do not, it would seem, have to comply with any sort of moral standards about what they publish. Could their very sophisticated algorithms spot a lie at 40 paces, or do they publish and be dammed?
So, I was fascinated when I spotted this event on this exact topic run ‘Fact or Fictions – RIP the Importance of Truth in Public Discourse,’. Run by a group called P/O/P/A/G/A/N/D/A, every few months they organise a discussion at The Book Club in Shoreditch. Looking back over previous events and listening to previous podcasts, I couldn’t resist. (Hard to get tickets so watch out for the next announcement).
There I heard journalists, politicians, PR people, psychologists and a cross section of people who had a lot to say, debate this very conundrum. I learned that Facebook is reported to have 30 psychologists on their news teams that create stories by using words that make us read on. These words and phrases hook us in and stimulate clicks and followers which inform the algorithm to find other similar stories that we may ‘like’. They understand that just like sugar addictions, the more we read about stuff that we agree with or like, the more we crave similar stories. By presenting stories that reflect our own way of thinking, our own personal stance on life, in some sort of way we fill the need of our egos to be right. And as we continue linking to similar stories and news feeds, we start believing that the volume of the information is a measure of the caliber of its truth. Where all this connects together and it how it is linked to commerce, is where it gets really interesting.
In the beginning, it all seemed perfectly innocent. Hot on the tail of ‘Friends Reunited’ a new and more sophisticated Facebook encouraged us to join an exclusive walled club, a platform that enabled the sharing our news with friends and family on a whole different level. Share photos, tag events with names – document your favourite things and events. Tell us where you are going, who you are with and what you are doing. Then, we were encouraged to make friends with people on the periphery of our lives. The aspirational badge of honour of ‘How many friends do you have?’ became office and playground conversations. And inadvertently, by becoming’ friends’ we created wider sources of data. And whilst somewhere in our hearts, we baby boomers, together with Generations X and Y, suspected that our data was being sold. But in truth, how many of us really gave more than a backward glance for the algorithms that searched and matched and greedily acquired our information to create the data for commerce.
I asked my nephew aged 16, who is blazing a trail as wonderful Generation Z, why he and his friends shared so much detail of their lives with each other. Did he realise that this content that he freely posted to attract ‘hits, likes and shares’, had an impact on his future career path? According to the HR companies there at P/O/P/A/G/A/N/D/A, as the application/CV, arrives on the desk, a team of researchers are doing a back check on a candidate’s social media pages. After all who wants to employ or insure someone for health cover who gets wasted every weekend?
As Brands and Advertisers, we use consumer-profiling data to create our own commercial advantage in a very competitive world and there’s nothing wrong with that. But then only this week we learned that our pop-up ads, intended to exactly target customers, were being unwittingly high-jacked by terrorist groups, porn sites and the likes.
But just as the journalists and politicians at the P/O/P/A/G/A/N/D/A event were asked difficult questions about their moral responsibility to report the truth, maybe, we, as an industry have to find another way to use the data and all the opportunities that technology creates, so our customers don’t feel that they are being stalked and betrayed.
And then I went home and watched Jon Hurt and Richard Burton in 1984. Don’t get me started on that!