It’s a depressing fact that facts don’t carry the weight they once did, and still should. But there are ways to fight back against mis- and disinformation, says Brunswick’s Chad Giron.
Ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter is all it takes to diagnose the communications landscape as infested with “fake news.” The line between truth and fiction is heavily blurred by deepfakes, partisan media outlets and old-fashioned lies, emanating even from individuals empowered to lead governments and institutions.
Professional communicators and journalists are trained to believe that “the truth” is a kind of curative tonic for their audiences. If individuals could only be exposed to the truth about a topic then, surely, their passions and opinions would orbit around the gravitational pull of facts and reason. This is simply not true.
“The truth,” and its foot soldiers, facts, face several opposing forces. Some are endemic to our modern media environment and the mechanics of social media. Some are simply human nature. All contribute to a dynamic wherein relying upon “the truth” and facts to convince audiences is a risky if not a losing strategy.
The most powerful opposing force is reach. Misinformation is more popular—way more popular—than truth. It reaches many, many more people. Recently, a client was the subject of a large volume of false and misleading online content. Their media team then dedicated a significant amount of time helping reporters source and substantiate the accurate content.
At Brunswick, we examined the reach and engagement of the accurate articles versus the articles with false or misleading information, and the result was dispiriting. On average, the corrected content received only 2 percent of the engagement of the most popular misinformation articles. In other words, “the truth” sells nowhere near as well as falsehoods.
Follow-up focus group research revealed that many individuals in the client’s target audience weren’t aware of the existence of fact-checking websites. Those who were aware of fact-checking sites perceived their content to be no more trustworthy than misinformation. Among these individuals, an affinity for misinformation lingered even after being shown that it was false.
This brings us to a second force opposing the effectiveness of truth: human nature. Misinformation is more widely shared because it is more interesting. Whether it’s today’s tabloids or the penny dreadfuls of the Victorian era, salaciousness sells. Misinformation is often filled with narratives featuring powerful, well-known individuals and organizations allegedly engaged in outrageous activity. These fantastic stories are designed to generate clicks regardless of the cost to reputations, public discourse or public policy. They are packaged to look like news to lend their content legitimacy—all the better to influence you—but they are not remotely beholden to journalistic integrity.