With the U.S. election on the horizon for 2020, an ongoing impeachment inquiry, the U.K.’s snap election in mere weeks, and Twitter and Facebook grappling with political advertising policy, we’re hearing more about the implications of fake news on politics, policy, and social issues.
But what of the impact of fake news on brands? While the use of misinformation to manipulate stock prices, attack competitors, or influence consumers isn’t new, the threat of new technologies like deep fake videos and social media bots bring these threats to a new level for brands. It’s a call to action for the marketers and PR teams who defend those brands.
Back in 2004, Gartner’s Daryl Plummer predicted the potential for this cataclysm. He noted that the effectiveness of such fake news propagation would come not just from technology, but from the public’s susceptibility:
“Fake reality for sale will be the norm in the next decade. Surprisingly, its growth will not be about technology, but it will be about society’s propensity for allowing the deviant to become the norm. As people come to expect the use of virtual technology instead of real-time human interaction, the psychological outrage expected with counterfeit reality will be diminished.”
Indeed, in 2017, Gartner’s Slyvain Fabre and Rick Holgate published Maverick research imploring CIO’s to take action to the reduce the threat of fake news to the enterprise. They recommended continuous monitoring of news sources, flagging perceived threats, and establishing a stronger culture of critical thinking to inform business decisions.
We’re now starting to see impacts of this Era of Fake News on marketers, especially those who answer the public’s call for enterprises and their leaders to take a stand on societal, political, and cultural issues. This demand for brands to wade into the political fray carries great potential benefit – we know that consumers are more likely to buy from and remain loyal to companies who share their values, but it also carries great risk. This is especially true as we see Plummer’s prediction of consumer vulnerability to alternate facts become reality. Recent Gartner research shows that, at least in the U.S., the political spectrum has never been more polarized – fewer Americans hold a centrist political position, most have gravitated right or left, and trust in brands has dropped to 47%.
Thus the Era of Fake News from a marketing perspective can be summarized by five key trends:
- There is a lack of a common fact base – as digital attention spans dissolve, people become vulnerable to clickbait and soundbites as complete information without further investigation. This scenario will be exploited by bad actors using emerging technology like deep fake video. While its use to date has largely been in the entertainment (read: pornography) industry, its potential use to attack a marketer’s product, organization, and leadership should be incredibly concerning to brand stewards.
- The virality of social media – specifically to spread misinformation – has never been greater. A recent study shows that false information spread six times faster on Twitter than factual information.
- Audience polarization – we’ve never been more fractured politically as a society, and we increasingly seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs, rather than contrarian positions that may challenge those beliefs or persuade us to change our opinions.
- Brands are coming under attack from new enemies – Elected officials, official government organizations, well-organized consumer activist groups and hacker organizations are increasingly willing and able to seize fake information and attack brands directly online. When Patagonia ran a campaign to preserve Bears Ears National Monument, the U.S. Department of the Interior used its official Twitter account to attack the brand.
- The decline in trust – All of these trends — fake content, virality, audience polarization and new brand enemies are taking place against a backdrop of declining trust in government, media and business.
In our new research, “Protect, Monitor, and Defend Your Brand in the Era of Fake News” we lay out key steps marketers should be taking – from social monitoring technologies to crisis management processes in order to adapt and survive in this new era. Marketers who need further guidance when taking a stand on societal and political issues should read “Best Practices for Navigating Brand Activism in a Polarized Era” by my colleague Lindsey Roeschke.
And we’d love to hear from you – what threats are you seeing on the horizon? Do you believe technology like deep fake video is going to become a major threat to marketers? How do you feel about governments attacking brands directly?