This past weekend, as I browsed online for summer T-shirts, I came across one emblazoned with the slogan, “Fake News.” It made me laugh—and I flirted with adding it to my cart, but I hate T-shirts with messages. What struck me most was how perfectly that message encapsulates our times. Fake or faux seems to be the word and sentiment of the moment, a cry for truth but also a way of life. I own five vegan leather jackets. They’re faux, which makes them better, but if I were to view my wardrobe through a filter of orthodoxy, these jackets would be considered part of my contribution to “fake” culture—something I have embraced but with which I may never be wholly comfortable. There is the Botox I have used to erase wrinkles and the blond highlights that restore the hair color of my youth, both innocent gestures that outwardly make me less real, but that allow me to feel closer to my true self—the person I feel like on the inside.
Truthiness means “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” As a word, it has been around since Stephen Colbert coined the term; it was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2006. As a concept, it arguably has been around forever—certainly through decades of marketing. But right now, truthiness is a global dilemma because it is being applied more and more to hard news. Sure, tabloids have dished half-truths for decades, but the proliferation of misinformation has flourished with the advent of social media and citizen journalism. As the BBC’s Amol Rajan wrote in an editorial for the Independent, “The truth is hard, expensive and sometimes boring, whereas lies are easy, cheap and thrilling.” In this context, cynicism is an understandable response. Whom can we trust at a time when facts are so easily manipulated and when researchers have found that lies spread far faster than truth?
A modern conundrum is that, even as we distrust news found online, we continue to rely on it. A new Harris Poll on “Trust in U.S. News Media,” conducted with Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, revealed that more than eight in ten people surveyed (82%) said they were concerned about what is real or fake on the internet, and more than two-thirds (67%) distrust news on social media, and yet 42%—including 54% of Millennials and 62% of Gen-Zs—said they get news on social media each week.
Our reliance on questionable “news” is dangerous in the best of times, but particularly now, as the Covid-19 pandemic evolves in real time. People are searching for facts that may not yet be established within a news environment teeming with disinformation. Combine this with society’s voracious need to “doomscroll”—continually seeking bad news online—and there’s your fertile breeding ground for uncertainty and unsubstantiated “facts.”
What does this mean for brands? Now more than ever, we need campaigns that remind people to question sources and seek truth. In the modern era, brands are no longer just purveyors of goods; at their best, they are sources of information, forces for sociopolitical change, and trusted allies.
This March, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) found that 43 percent of consumers surveyed wanted to hear from brands during the pandemic. “Brands and marketers need to stand for something and go deep into it,” said Ryan Berger, founding partner of the influencer marketing platform HYPR and founder of The Berger Shop. “The more you are dedicated to a message and surround that message with clear and measurable action, the more trusted your brand will be—and, therefore, the better positioned you will be to spread truthful messages.”
But maintaining truth in communication is no easy task these days. It requires rigorous attention and fact-checking to ensure no falsehoods are passed along and that one’s advertisements aren’t inadvertently appended to misleading or malicious content. David Jowett, a partner and head of media at the Toronto-based No Fixed Address agency, is clear about the challenge facing brands. “I have seen the exponential growth of fake news,” he said. “But now, it isn’t only the bad guys pushing it. Trump + COVID-19 + Brexit has created a whole new level of intricacy, as professional news outlets are implicit in telling stories without any balance at all.”
So how does his agency manage disinformation? “In two ways. First: Technology. There’s an increasing amount of software that allows you to buy ad space based on the context of the environment. Second: We’re increasingly using direct to select publishers in order to control where we appear.”
If brands do not speak out effectively and immediately against misinformation and malicious disinformation, they risk damage to their reputation. In 2017, Starbucks was forced to deny claims put out under its name that it would be offering free coffee to undocumented immigrants. Last year, the U.K.’s Metro Bank had to reassure customers of its financial health after viral social media messages fueled rumors it was close to collapse. Meanwhile, BlackRock was the victim of a spoof letter purporting to be from its chief executive, claiming that the global investment management firm would stop investing in any company not taking climate change seriously. I could go on. One especially worrisome aspect is that small businesses are even more vulnerable, having fewer resources with which to counter false rumors. All it takes is one jaded customer with a large social media following to upload a false story for the damage to be done.
If there’s one reassuring takeaway, it’s that fake news is nothing new. It goes back centuries, and the world has managed to survive thus far. When I was a teenager, I remember hearing the urban legend of a KFC customer who purportedly ate a crispy-coated rat. Such was the spread of this particular lie that it’s now a subject of academic discussion. The good news is that today, we are much more aware of malicious content—although that didn’t stop the gullible from being separated from nearly $120,000 in the recent bitcoin scam on Twitter.
The erosion of trust threatens us all. Proactively building and maintaining a culture of trust is far easier than trying to reestablish trust after it is lost. Winning trust starts with operating and communicating with integrity. It also requires having—and continuously reviewing and updating—a ready-to-roll crisis plan to deal with disinformation or other attacks on the truth. Social media teams, too, must be proactive in monitoring brand mentions, so rumors can be stopped before they gain traction. Hone employees’ fact-checking skills—a practice now commonly seen on the internet in general and on news channels—and make smart use of science and verifiable data to counter unsubstantiated assertions.
The right to fair, free, and, above all, trustworthy information can’t be taken for granted in the digital age. It’s up to each of us to be eternally vigilant, on both our own channels and the ones we follow. There are many who criticize Jeff Bezos for how he has managed his workforce and philanthropic giving (and aspects of his personal life), but he was spot on when he said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Good or bad, make sure those conversations are centered in truth.