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Fighting Fake News and Bad PR on Today's Free-for-all Internet
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Blair 01 by: Colleen Brown, Founder, Marca Global

From the Information Age to the Reputation Age

“Civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.” —Friedrich Hayek, Laws, Liberation, and Liberty, Rules of Order, Vol 1
This sage observation from the Nobel prize-winning British economist has never been more relevant than it is in today’s Information Age, made possible by the exponential expansion of the worldwide internet. Never in human history has the information from which we all benefit been more accessible. The internet breaks down the boundaries of social class, economics, and geography. And as we’ll see, that free flow of information so vital for making informed decisions has never been more vulnerable.

From Information Superhighway to Infotopia

The accumulated digital knowledge of the ages is now available to anyone with a smartphone, laptop, or even a public library card. The public sees the internet as a near-perfect democracy in action. It’s a paragon of free speech, offering a dynamic flow of information to and from users on a global scale. In the early days, the internet pioneers promised us an information “superhighway” and they delivered. The world eagerly embraced the freely granted access to massive amounts of knowledge, opportunities for expanding marketplaces with efficient e-commerce, and new social media. This new tool united the global community and provided a platform for unrestricted free speech for all. Harvard legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein coined the eloquent term which captures the euphoric enthusiasm of the Information Age with his 2006 book, ” Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge.” But the free-for-all nature of today’s internet has unforeseen consequences. Just as many minds produce knowledge, many minds can also produce chaos.

The Snake in the Infotopia Garden

Those who paved the information superhighway never warned us about the many bumps and potholes along the way. Today, we need to know how to navigate the “ready, fire, aim” arena of the internet. Today we find ourselves immersed in a deluge of gossip, innuendo, and outright fake news, all of which disrupt the flow of information. Gone is the age of the fact-based scoop. Now, it’s about the sought after phenomenon of going viral where facts are secondary to the number of clicks a headline can generate. Fighting fake news is vital. While the internet functions as the world’s stage it comes with an open microphone which anyone with a smartphone and a grudge can use for malicious purposes at will. There is no effective technique to stop any malicious actor from yelling “Fire!” in the crowded global theater of the free-for-all internet. Unbridled, unvetted, uncensored access to the world stage is the snake in the infotopia garden. And it’s a snake which proliferates abundantly as we’ll demonstrate further on. The unknown masses can completely obstruct the flow of accurate information. Anyone can pronounce rash uninformed judgments and promote biased interpretations with negative reviews and click-baiting websites. Whether initiated by unscrupulous business competitors, rogue or discharged employees, or disgruntled consumers they all become a negative force to be reckoned with when your business is the target. In the infotopian society, an astounding 85% of consumers place more credibility in an online review than they do on a recommendation from someone they know personally.

The Power of Misinformation

If a business finds itself in the crossfire of fake news and planted negative comments associated with it at the top of the SERP (Search Engine Results Pages) they can find themselves screened right out of the search process by those potential customers who place full faith in online reviews and reputation. The 85% majority will decide that further investigation is a waste of time and quickly move on to greener pastures, the next business on the SERP with a sparkling 5-star reputation. Your company’s website, no matter how superior the products and services you offer, will never get a glance. At Reputation Sciences we have the proven digital tools you need to take control of the online conversation. We can put the reins of the all-important search engine rankings in your hands to ensure that your organization can overcome the inevitable negativity that all businesses face as the online world moves from the Information Age to the Reputation Age. Fighting fake news, and negative comments which go viral requires an ongoing online PR campaign. For every Blackhat operator, a Whitehat countermeasure is available to enable you to remain profitable and competitive in what many are referring to now as the arena of online corporate reputation warfare. And as we’ll see the best defense is a strong offense. First, we’ll take a close look at the strange characteristics of the fake news phenomenon. We’ll give you an idea of just what you’re up against in the Reputation Age.

The Big Lie Theory and the Free-For-All Internet

When it comes to “Blackhat” operators, none could be darker than the notorious Nazi propaganda expert Joseph Goebbels who explained the fundamental principle of fake news with his infamous advice:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
When repetition is the key to belief the free-for-all internet becomes the perfect cauldron for cooking up the big lies which people come to believe. The easy access internet combined with eager fingers hovering over retweet and share buttons on social media platforms can repeat the “big lies” in proportions that the Nazi minister could never have imagined. Sadly, the fake news phenomenon has proven Goebbel’s Big Lie Theory without a doubt. Further complicating matters is the fact that the public now perceives the internet as the most reliable source for the news of record. Less than 1% of the population relies on traditional television news, and trust in the mainstream media has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup Poll history. The widespread public perception that the internet is a more up-to-date, accurate source for news and information only adds fuel to the fake news wildfires. The internet never forgets, and the big lies persist and snowball over time. Fake news doesn’t get tossed away with yesterday’s newspaper. It spreads and solidifies into belief as it passes through the multitude of unknown users with unknown motives. Print and broadcast media are quickly falling by the wayside. And the internet has become the foundation of our collective intelligence. But it’s a foundation built on the shifting sands of fake news and easily corrupted information.

Who Can We Trust?

Walter Cronkite, the 20th-century network anchorman was once the most trusted man in America. Woodward and Bernstein set the benchmark for investigative reporting. They followed the facts wherever they pointed in a story without regard for political consequences. There was no predefined “narrative” into which every story was framed to support. Fact checking was a prerequisite. Today it’s an afterthought. And when a retraction is issued it rarely receives the viral response of the original error-filled report. The collapse of traditional journalistic principles which preserved integrity is the primary driver of the lack of trust in the mainstream media. So misplaced public faith in the dubious sources on the internet now becomes their only alternative source for information.

Shifting Responsibility For the 6 “W” Questions of Traditional Journalism

The fundamental questions of traditional journalism are Who, What, Where, When, Why, and hoW. An objective reporter would answer these questions without inserting personal opinions and judgments. Those conclusions were left to the reader. Decisions were made based on facts uncorrupted by a predefined “narrative” framed to support a specific agenda. Opinions were clearly separated from the presented facts and clearly defined as such. Rebuttals came in the form of thoughtfully written letters to the editor requiring enough motivation to write, seal, stamp and mail the letter allowing plenty of time throughout the process for the commenter to change their mind after further consideration. In the free-for-all, fast and furious internet, comments are impulsive. And they’re shared just as quickly with a viewership that makes the NY Times daily circulation look minuscule in comparison. And as we’ll see, we can’t count on the infotopian viewer to stop fake news in its tracks.

Fake News Outperforms True Stories in the “Twittersphere”

What we can count on is another unforeseen consequence of Professor Sunstein’s “infotopian” society. That consequence is the troubling phenomenon of fake news spreading faster and penetrating deeper in the public consciousness. Automated bots are the convenient scapegoats for the exponential spread of fake news. But an MIT study by data scientist Soroush Vosoughi filtered out any bot-created traffic in a dataset covering 12 years of Twitter. As a result, Vosoughi’s study revealed that human beings are the guilty parties. There’s a strange tendency to seek out and spread fake news stories much more frequently than the verified truth. Three million people spread 126,000 false stories for a total of 4.5 million shares. You can read more about how fake news outperforms the truth in this comprehensive report at Smithsonian.com.

Considering the Source and Fighting Fake News

It was the norm in the journalist’s profession to produce at least two authoritative verifiable sources. And the only agenda was to report a true story. Any sensational or unsupported publication, based on rumor and innuendo was “tabloid journalism” or “pulp.” Today, the talking heads of the mainstream media inject their own opinions without hesitation. And fake news mongers won’t hesitate to mix truth, error, and insinuation to increase the value of ad space. We find ourselves “twice removed” from the facts when a biased mainstream media story snowballs through social media. Without exception, unknown users take it upon themselves to “self-report” while ignoring or corrupting the facts.

Information or Indoctrination?

The facts are secondary in the Reputation Age. The 6 ‘W’ questions too frequently focus on who endorses or condemns an action, what opinion is politically correct, why the reader should agree, and how they should react or risk becoming a social pariah. Too often the viewer is receiving biased indoctrination instead of information. This is especially true when relying on news and stories spoonfed by social media influencers. It becomes the responsibility of the SME or corporation under fire to go on the offensive. That’s when to assert the importance of the traditional “6W” questions with a “white hat” approach, directing searchers to consider:
  • Where does this information come from?
  • How did the story originate?
  • When did the information become available? Is it now obsolete, debunked, or retracted?
  • What is the reputation of this source?
  • Who are the authorities, if any, that verify this information?
  • Why would you respect the credibility of the source and cited authorities, if any?
These are the questions to ask to counter the effects of fake news and planted comments. By anticipating negative queries and establishing a prominent web presence to answer these negative “long-tailed keywords” a business can combat fake news with a balance of authoritative credentials and thought leadership. Reputation Sciences can provide the digital media strategies to ensure these countermeasures get the attention they deserve. Next, let’s take a look at one instance of the “Big Lie Theory” in action.

The “Popcorn Lung” Myth

The vaping industry offers many smokers an effective way to leave the hazardous habit of combustible tobacco smoking behind them. As addiction specialist Dr. Sally Satel explains in her article at Forbes, we’ve known since 1976 that it’s the tar in cigarettes that kills, not the nicotine. For many smokers, the electronic cigarette and e-liquids containing nicotine for vaping were the solution they’d been waiting for. The vaping business is decimating Big Tobacco, as CNBC’s Jim Cramer explains, and it’s not surprising that fake news was quickly deployed against the young but growing industry. As so often happens in reputation warfare those responsible for propagating the “vaping causes popcorn lung myth” are unknown users veiled by anonymity. As Snopes.com reported, the myth originated when “Disreputable viral websites matched an unrelated photograph with claims that a study had linked e-cigarettes with popcorn lung.”

And the Popcorn Lung Truth

In reality, the lung condition comes from the ingredient diacetyl, which is sometimes used in flavored vaping e-liquids as well as microwave popcorn and should be called “popcorn factory lung.” And even that moniker is a stretch. The click baiting sites linked an old and inconclusive 2002 CDC report. The report claimed diacetyl caused 8 cases of popcorn lung in workers at a popcorn factory. And it also insinuated that diacetyl in e-cigs had the same effect on vapers. This led to a gory picture of an e-cig user whose jury-rigged vaping contraption exploded. And it included links to a GoFundMe page to help “the victim.” As vaping grows in popularity the young industry has continuously found itself in the fake news crossfire. As a growing $3 billion dollar industry, it finds itself in opposition to the corporate giants of Big Tobacco at $35 billion as well as the $446 billion pharmaceutical industry and their lucrative nicotine replacement products. So, even though the popcorn lung myth has been thoroughly debunked, the vaping industry faces formidable opposition as opportunistic politicians see an easy target which has been erroneously associated with tobacco smoking as reported in the Rolling Stone article “E-Cigs’ Inconvenient Truth: It’s Much Safer to Vape.” Sadly, we are now seeing the actual legislation passed. It’s all designed to nip the vaping industry in the bud. And it’s based on the unstoppable inertia of fake news going mainstream. Clive Bates at Counterfactual titled his informative article “The US media is losing its mind over vaping and Juul – the questions a credible journalist should ask.”

Reputation Sciences For the Reputation Age

Consequently, as the world relies more and more on the internet as its indisputable news of record, reputation is everything. Thought leadership, authority, and integrity must be foremost in the public’s perception of your business or organization. When your company finds itself in the crosshairs of unknown malicious actors, the best defense is a good offense. We have the SEO, branding, and search engine expertise to provide the effective countermeasures that combat fake news. At Reputation Sciences we offer competitive analysis, digital media audits, and execution strategies to ensure that these countermeasures get the attention they deserve, allowing you to take control of the online conversation concerning your business or organization. So, in the Reputation Age, it’s not a question of “if” you’ll face negative online opposition but “when,” so contact us today.
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