In 2016, Oxford Dictionary selected ‘Post-Truth’ as the Word of the Year. It describes circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” No one could forget what a landmark year it was, with the United States electing Donald Trump as president and the UK voting to leave the European Union. Misinformation, from social media and from the campaigns themselves, was a highly influential component of both of these outcomes. You might recall the infamous red buses or the viral ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory? However, 2016 was really only the beginning.
In the four years since then, the problem of ‘fake news’ has only become more extreme. Last week, the world watched in anticipation as the American presidential race was officially called for Joe Biden. Yet even as congratulations from world leaders rolled in, speeches were made, fireworks launched, and Americans danced in the streets, President Trump refused to concede the election. In a move, truly unprecedented in modern history, he continues to allege mass-scale voter fraud without any substantiated evidence. His tweets continue to be flagged by Twitter about as quickly as he can fire them out. However, politics is not the only area where this phenomenon has taken hold. While the world awaits a COVID-19 vaccine, there are already plenty of anti-COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies circulating. In the fearfulness and uncertainty of March, social media buzzed with fake ‘cures’ for the virus. Deniers claimed it was only a flu. 5G was blamed and towers were under siege. Then there was the Hydroxychloroquine debacle. Today, a vocal minority of people across the globe, are still protesting lockdowns and mask-wearing, citing their personal liberties or their own alternative version of ‘scientific fact.’
For the average person, this climate of fake news can be disorienting and stressful. It has created a need to stay hypervigilant—an extra layer of consideration for engaging with the world that has made many people skeptical, if not completely distrustful by default. We have begun to adjust to the reality that photos online can be doctored and deepfake videos can be made to look convincing. Even for things as simple as booking a holiday rental or making a purchase online, ads can be falsified and good reviews can be bought. The news media has had the difficult task of reminding the public of their trustworthiness and journalistic integrity, while certain people remain posed to poke holes in whatever they say regardless. Social media companies, namely Facebook, have been in the hot seat for several years now for their failure to better regulate misinformation on their platforms. There has been an increased level of public awareness about the dangers of social media, but its fundamental design—to drive engagement at all costs—is what continues to make this danger so potent. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter, found that ‘fake new spreads six times faster than real news.’ Experts have cited how the lockdown, which has increased our isolation and the amount of time people are spending online, has also exasperated the misinformation problem. What the Guardian calls, ‘the world’s slackening grip on reality,’ has made people more susceptible to conspiracy theories like the ‘Plandemic’ and ‘Qanon.’
For brands, the threat of becoming a fake news target doesn’t loom quite as large as it does for other institutions. However, brands do risk being associated with unsavory content because of their proximity on a webpage. This is where carefully considered media management has never been more important. Brands need to remember that they do not have complete self-determination in how their brand is perceived. Consumers are co-collaborators in creating brand meaning, whether a brand likes it or not. Do your research. Mitigate any risk that you could collect the kinds of associations you don’t want for your brand. Social media giants like Facebook also earn the majority of their revenue from advertisements. Brands therefore wield a lot of power when it comes to the spread of fake news. This summer, the #StopHateForProfit campaign called for brands to pull their ads from Facebook due to, what activists called, their laissez-faire attitude towards cracking down on hate speech. It is becoming clear to consumers social media brands need to be held accountable. They will continue to hold your brand accountable for the role you play. Brands have the power to demand better for all of us.