How to Tell Your Business Story with a Blog

katharine fraser

My business blog about digital communications showcases my guiding principles for how to improve communications in daily practice, whether in your own blogs or newsletters, on the About Us page of your business website, and in other venues for the written word and speech.

My blogs provide free tips and insights as well as further samples of my writing style. Here you will find #DigitalDo advice as well as #DigitalDon’ts.

The consistent theme is that your should integrate all of your digital marketing so there is a cohesive brand throughout newsletters, blogs, websites and social media. Moreover, these must connect to each other to maximize your opportunities and exposure with customers/clients and prospects.

Not finding what you want? Reach out directly through the Contact Us page to schedule a consultation. Adroit Narratives offers content creation for a variety of formats, such as speech writing, presentations, white papers, blogs, advertorials and news-style stories.

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Elephant dancing on a glockenspiel

Are You Yelling? What’s with the All Caps in Online Comments?

It would be so lovely is social media platforms provided for italics for people to emphasize words. Why not? After all, websites can use italics.

Instead, we gentle readers of comments on news stories or comments on friends’ political posts on Facebook are thrown back by a barrage of all caps. I will refrain from blasting you with all caps, even for demonstration purposes.

The beauty of italics is the letters lean over, as if they are whispering to a confident or in a conspiratorial fashion. The italics are letting the reader in on something. Pssst, I want you to know I am applying emphasis to this word to stress a particular point. That is so much more pleasant and effective than all caps.

Also, the excessive use of all caps makes the writer of such a comment look deranged, as if the person is screaming, I refuse to follow your rules of grammar, syntax and civility, you M.F.-ers! Excuse us? The point is lost. Who cares what they were trying to say? Do you really want to work through a wall of angry all caps?

Granted, all caps were used in telegrams. So was the word stop. There is no need to write out stop and there is no longer a need for all caps. The U.S. National Hurricane Center persists in using all caps in portions of its bulletins, especially the opening line of an advisory, which is warranted because it is warning people about potentially deadly storms. The U.S. Navy, in 2013, dropped the all caps in its messaging system, a tradition stemming from the teletype machine.

Reviving 18th Century Rules of Capitalization

As an aside, you may have noticed that the above subhead is in all caps. That is because it is a sub-headline and such breaks in copy (text) are easy to see when set off in caps. It’s not a form of emphasis. Now, as for the rules of capitalization, please read on.

Many professional writers in the United States, especially news writers, use AP Style. This style guide will remind users that proper nouns are capitalized, such as a name or city, but not all nouns. Oddly, I keep seeing people capitalizing some nouns but not all nouns, as if possessed by a spirit that wishes to confound and confuse the living with randomly capitalized words sprinkled throughout a Facebook or Twitter rant.

Remember, you are seeking to persuade people to see your point of view. You are not writing the Declaration of Independence. So, drop the caps on all the nouns you wish to emphasize.

Yes, Spelling Still Matters

Are you being mocked by elitists on Facebook who retort that your flagrant spelling errors in news story comments make you look uneducated? Perhaps you are using voice-to-text to comment and that is why your text is as intelligible as an elephant trying to send Morse code on a glockenspiel.

Please, use your fingers and opposable thumbs to type out your comments. You may even take a moment to read it before sending. In a moment of self-reflection, you might even edit it for clarity. Just leave out the all caps.

Katharine Fraser

Robot and poet

On Writing: Who Does It Better, a Robot or a Person?

Today, I received an email pitch on the wonders of artificial intelligence writing. AI robots can write faster and more prolifically than a human, the pitch noted.

Bots, such as Watson, have written ad copy variants, the proponent of AI copywriting informed me. (I have no idea if a bot wrote the email, but I am guessing it’s possible given how dull the wording is.)

AI is already used to spit out news blurbs generated by sports scores and financial statements, the pitch added. Uh-huh, but can the robot tell you about how a pitcher reacted to a certain call or provide context for financial results that might be counterintuitive for some reason that is not in the data? Sure, speed is of the essence, but for those who want to immediately see numbers, they can already get them in that format.

Now, as someone who has written a fair share of earnings reports, I do think it’s silly for a human to get bogged down in writing a long, comprehensive overview of a report that already is an easy-to-read long, comprehensive overview of financial data. By the time a human writes one sentence, computers are already trading off the statement’s data. But a human with institutional knowledge and historical perspective can place the data points in context.

Granted, a bot could do that too, if programmed with all the permutations and historical data. Well, maybe. It would lack emotion and sincerity. It would also be bereft of an authority that only a human can possess: experience.

A human can tell you what it’s like to walk a mile in his or her shoes, based on experience. My bot emailer cited an example of AI writing merchandise descriptions for e-commerce of shoes. Sure, it can describe color, size and mode of dress. That’s nice, but what is it like to wear them? For that, a consumer will likely read the reviews written by real customers. This is where experience can provide specifics, such as whether a pair of boots was truly waterproof, as advertised.

Making your reader feel as if they are there in the space you are describing is essential to good writing. This is what made writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, known for their New Journalism style of lively, descriptive writing. Such a writer would not tell you the specs on a pair of loafers; he would tell you about the type of person wearing it, which is much more descriptive and useful.

Same goes with blogs about businesses. The blog is an opportunity to persuade a prospect that you product or service is precisely what they need to reach a goal or resolve a problem. You don’t want to waste time dwelling on the nuts and bolts of how you do your job. Instead, explain why you do it a certain way. In other words, don’t just tell them (like a robot would). Show them.

Cheers,

Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives

Fake news zombies

Zombies Littering the Information Highway – Truth Still Matters

At the dawn of the Information Age, idealists probably assumed that increased access to digital data would boost knowledge in beneficial ways for society. Safe bet? Nope. Instead, the Information Highway is an endless traffic jam of falsehoods trying to block truth.

Visualize it like a zombie movie, a highway littered with crashed cars and mindless human bodies propelled by a virus and hell bent on destruction of others.

How did this happen? In a nutshell, when the internet became commercialized in the 1990s, traditional news organizations didn’t want to be left behind, so they offered their news for free. Non-traditional sources of news popped up online as well, some good, some not so much. Eventually, there was a flattening in which many consumers of information could not distinguish between falsity and truth.

For example, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign season was chock full of fake news, i.e., the tale of an FBI agent investigating Hillary’s emails who killed himself after murdering his wife and being the source of leaks about the investigation. Perhaps you too saw this “Denver Guardian” news story being posted on Facebook. This absurdity led to a great headline by the very real Denver Post: “There is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, despite that Facebook post you saw.”

The fake news machines are still whirling out complete bullsh*t and fact checkers are having trouble keeping up. In Mexico and the United States, Facebook is attempting to ferret out the truth. The Washington Post (a very real news organization) reported that the social media giant is apparently struggling with this task: “The hardest part is where to draw the line between a legitimate political campaign and domestic information operations,” said Guy Rosen, a top security executive at Facebook.

Is it really that hard? How long would it take to disprove that the wife of then candidate and now President Obrador of Mexico is not really the grandchild of a Nazi.

Apparently, Twitter too thinks truth is really hard. “We have not figured this out, but I do think it would be dangerous for a company like ours … to be arbiters of truth,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in an interview on CNN this Sunday. Hmmm, so when Alex Jones says that the Sandy Hook school shooting never happened or some such, is it really that hard to figure out if the speaker/tweeter is lying?

Then again, Rudy Giuliani, formerly America’s Mayor and federal prosecutor who now represents President Trump tells us that “truth isn’t truth.” In an attempt to clarify, Giuliani later tweeted: “My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements.”

Yeah, no. Truth is about incontrovertible facts and evidence. If I tell you 4+5=9, and someone else asserts that the correct answer is 11, that person is either a liar or a dummy who cannot grasp arithmetic.

Unfortunately, the internet, TV and radio are full of malarkey these days and it’s coming from different directions. In addition to the Russian government’s actions in social media content aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. (see indictments) and its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (see these other indictments), now Facebook and Twitter have disclosed they are shutting down an Iranian disinformation campaign.

Still, both companies are grappling with a hydra-headed monster that is harming their appeal with investors. The companies have not only a financial motivation, but a fiduciary duty to enhance security and the value of the content they allow to be published.

But what about users? Where lies our responsibility as social media consumers? Yes, we advise each other about spreading dubious news or chide each other. We can have robust, civil debates about the truth we seek. We can share real news too, even if it’s bad news. And, if the news gets really bad, we need to stick together. The truth is out there and it needs to matter again.

–Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives

Out of Context – So, What Did You Mean?

A series of out-of-context tweets by a new member of the New York Times editorial board recently set off a firestorm. The old tweets were written to mimic the racist writing of her trolls by using similar language but using white people as the subject of prejudice. It’s a classic example of why you are going to want to use all 280 characters to supply full context and meaning to tweets.

In our fast-paced lives, texts can also mystify a recipient, especially if they only amount to a few words. Go ahead and write out an entire sentence. You can do it!

There’s also the matter of the lost art of business correspondence. People used to open a letter with the phrase, “I am writing to you to” [insert purpose of your inquiry or statement]. It’s called getting to the point.

Have you ever read a long email and could not discern what the author really wanted? And then wondered if the sender was being passive aggressive or something? You can avoid that by making a mental outline, starting with the purpose of this email is [fill in the blank]. State that out front. Elaborate on the essentials: who, what, when, where, how and most importantly, why. Don’t forget a salutation. Email formats can get cluttered, so by signing off with best regards, cheers or your preferred wording, you are letting the speed reader know, yes, this is the end.

If you are making multiple points or citing data, using bullet points or enumeration really helps set apart the information for a clean, easy-to-read presentation. But, do not make too many points! The only thing worse than a short, cryptic message is a long, didactic one. If the recipient did not ask for an encyclopedic tome, don’t give them one. Respect their time. If something is that involved, it might be time for a meeting.

Pet Peeve: Cutesy Subject Lines from Solicitors

My inbox fills with random solicitations with quirky openings, such as this real subject line: “Not as bad as an awkward first date.” The email content was just as cheesy: “But it still stings 🙁
Sounds like we weren’t meant for each other. But I wanted to reach out to you one last time. I have a few suggestions on how your company can improve it’s online customer acquisition rate. If I don’t hear back, I’ll assume that the timing isn’t right.” Yeah, here’s something that is not right: your grammar. The possessive for a company is its, not it’s.

What’s up with people who send presumably thousands of emails to solicit business and yet do not bother with the grammar in their template? Similarly, this subject line phrase needs a comma: “Quick question Katharine.” Quick answer, Dude: No, I do not want to buy Instagram followers.

Similarly, I cannot stand brackets in email subject lines, such as this real one: “[BLOG] 17% of sales teams struggle with this…” Please, go away, clickbaiters. These emails come across as the written equivalent of robocallers.

Be real in your business writing, but not too casual. Be clear and direct, but mindful that short phrases can come across as terse and rude. Before clicking the send button, do a quick read to guard against typos and ensure the tone is just right. Once satisfied, let ‘er rip.

 

 

 

Crystal ball used for telepathy

Confusion Reigns in the Communications Game of Telepathy

Remember the game of telephone we played as kids in which one person starts the game by whispering a sentence to the person to their right? This goes around until the message circled back to the last person, who would say it out loud. With messages routinely garbled, hilarity ensued.

But have you ever played the game of telepathy? This is when you communicate to someone while assuming they know all the same facts that you do! Hilarity does not always ensue in these cases.

Sometimes the issue is minor, such as a scheduling mix-up. When a client called me today, he engaged in semi-small talk, including the basic how are you. When I said I was looking forward to meeting him tomorrow, it turned out the meeting was earlier today. It was then I realized why he was checking in with me. He was too polite to say, where were you? We then realized that the meeting schedule was miscommunicated. We pivoted to making another plan.

What about more nuanced or longer-running misunderstandings. You and a business associate or colleague could have been talking past each other without realizing it. I used to work for a corporation whose management training focused in part on this phenomenon.

A trainer asked if anyone ever thought someone else was an idiot. Once the laughter quieted, the trainer had a follow-up: what if the other person was simply armed with a separate set of facts than you? Furthermore, what if the so-called, hypothetical “idiot” actually had different marching orders than you?

Surely, we’ve all experienced that realization that another party or team is being instructed differently, even in the same company. I once had a boss who found it annoying when another team had a meeting to talk about how to integrate with our team, but did not invite him to their chat.

Or, perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a bewildering email. Sometimes, even in seeking clarification based on what you know the situation becomes even more confusing and/or aggravating. Now, you are just plain fed up. Before firing off an angry email in response, consider a different approach.

You could write something to the effect of, say, Joe, I feel like we’re approaching this situation from very different perspectives – maybe you know something I don’t know! Hopefully, you will diffuse any annoyance or worse emotion on the other end. Indeed, maybe he does know something you don’t know. Also, the dollop of self-deprecation may soften the tone. Joe might also realize it’s possible you know something he does not. At the very least, Joe should appreciate the neutral acknowledgement that something is screwy and you want to pleasantly clear it up.

Simply put, the game of telepathy is always a loser. Use your communication skills to gracefully ask questions, including open-ended questions that may elicit answers you did not expect. Listen as carefully as you speak to ensure you do not miss important information or cues. Best of all, if a digital dialogue is going nowhere fast, use the telephone function of your phone verbally make the connection!

F-bomb in type symbols.

Words and Their Power to Persuade or Repel

I’ve been known to drop the F-bomb and, from experience, can attest to its abysmal failure to produce any positive results, unless you count the sympathy of a like-minded audience. The past few days, I’ve seen Trump backers citing Robert Di Nero’s f*ck Trump tirade as an illustration of how liberals look down on conservatives.

Maybe you wouldn’t interpret the actor’s Tony Awards speech that way at all. Perhaps you applauded. But, the fact remains that it failed to persuade anyone who doesn’t already dislike Trump to consider that the president might be ineffectual, corrupt, inept, … fill in the negative blank. I live in Texas and a Republican congressional candidate I am voting for (and already did in the primary and primary runoff) put it this way:

“If the far left doubles down on this type of stuff, then they will continue to lose. Make your argument using facts and reason, not anger and vulgarity.” – Dan Crenshaw, Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, 2nd District of Texas (Houston area).

I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, ironically, the notion that civility is required to advance a political position has one striking exception: Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean anyone of any political stripe should strive to emulate him. Years ago, I attended a session at a journalism conference about how to deal with recalcitrant subjects. A reporter in the audience related to the speaker, a retired FBI agent, how a town official was belligerent with the press and anyone who questioned him, whether a constituent or another official. The advice was sage: never yell back at a shouter; they’ve been doing it their whole life and will be better at it.

This morning, I watched a video clip of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who currently is a congressman serving the 16th District of Texas. He is running for Senate against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. The video was posted by Save the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. As a backer of wildlife conservation, I do have questions about how an expanded border wall will harm wildlife. So, I watched the video, as a Texas voter. He lost me at the F-word.

He started with his point of view about immigration, which was completely sympathetic toward people who have crossed the border on an illegal basis. He also noted Mexico is one of our closest trading partners. I pondered what he was saying. I am pro-free trade, but do not think that gives Mexico a free pass on what appears to be allowing unfettered access to the U.S. border via The Beast, etc., or on its drug wars and trade. And while I do not believe that the policy of separating children and parents is working as a deterrent to international trade, the continual flow of illegal immigrants needs to slow down.

O’Rourke seemed to contradict himself, on one hand citing record-low apprehensions of illegal immigrants and then saying as the number of people trying to cross increases, the number of people who are dying in their effort increases. Nonetheless, I continued to listen because this issue is important in Texas and the U.S. at large, and I like to hear different perspectives.

Then he spoke of families detained and separated from children in McAllen and elsewhere on the border. He recalled, in 1939, a ship of German Jews seeking refuge in the United States was sent back to Europe. Coming back to current events and concerns, he said the reason people serve and seek action is “because we want to f*cking do something and if there was ever a moment for us do something, it is at this moment right now.” Errr, OK. People have likened this politician to John F. Kennedy. Well, JFK did not talk about “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can f*cking do for your country.”

Needlessly dropping the F-bomb into a serious policy discussion cheapens whatever point you wanted to convey. It’s just not an effective word to deploy when trying to persuade anyone who isn’t already in complete agreement with you. It’s the crude equivalent to “can I get an amen” and the crowd roaring back with “f*ck yeah!” How does that really advance a cause beyond its existing adherents?

The F-bomb falls flat in any effort to persuade a broader audience or compel others to your side. O’Rourke, who is behind Cruz in the polls, would need to win votes from independents and Republicans who aren’t fans of Cruz. I submit he drop the salty language in his quest for a Senate seat. If the Senate is to remain “the greatest deliberative body in the world,” we will need continued discernment, fact-finding, oversight and good policymaking. That won’t happen with a barrage of f-bombs.

Always strive to find the best words for the job at hand, especially if you are selling a position in the great marketplace of ideas.

Free speech, government and social media

American Free Speech, Social Media, and Your Government

Facebook is trying, Lord knows, it’s trying. But it seems to be getting tangled up in unintended consequences and big misses. And it may be on a collision course with free speech and government dissent, whether it likes it or not.

If you are still seeing questionable news items, such as outright fake news or baseless opinion masquerading as citizen journalism, you are not alone. You may have also noticed that real news is given the “i” for information imprimatur by Facebook. When you hover over the “i,” a blurb is generated that tells you about the publication. The platform’s users must deduce that the absence of such a blurb means the publisher is not taken seriously by Facebook.

Well, of course, Facebook has said it would ideally avoid such judgments and just be a technology company. But, the reality of election campaign law in the United States and cries for transparency means that is must identify political advertisers. No problem for a tech company, right?  Wrong. For example, the New York Times recently reported that Facebook failed to label the sponsor of an attack ad in a California congressional race.

SOCIAL MEDIA COUNTS AS A PUBLIC FORUM for free SPEECH

While some bemoan that Facebook became political, the reality is that public officials and their government offices use social media to communicate with constituents and voters. Many police departments also have garnered followers with useful public safety information mixed in with humorous posts.

The @realDonaldTrump account is the megaphone the president uses to bypass fact-checking to reach the masses and gin up a daily fervor. He recently lost a lawsuit over his account blocking users who express dissenting points of view from his politics. The Knight First Amendment Institute and blocked Twitter users brought the case to argue their participation in free speech had been limited. Although Twitter is a private company, the court held that the president’s account is controlled by the government and the content is government speech.

By extension, the court also found that the account constitutes a public forum and that the president’s account cannot block those with differing views from directly interacting with his tweets. The president was not alone in his efforts to stifle contradictory views. At the end of last year, ProPublica found that several governors (from both parties) and federal agencies had been blocking more than 1,200 social media accounts.

Shortly before the Trump Twitter case was decided in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation brought a related case in a federal court in Texas. EFF, on behalf of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is taking Texas A&M, a state university, to task for blocking Facebook page commenters and/or deleting posts that are critical of its animal testing program for muscular dystrophy research. A university spokesman declined to comment at the time of the lawsuit’s filing, according to the Houston Chronicle. But, a February 26 statement from the renowned veterinary school expressed dismay about critics of the MD research: “It saddens us that without full knowledge—of what we are doing, how the dogs are treated, and how close we are to an effective treatment—groups have taken a rigid position and are using slander that adversely affects the opinion of those who don’t know all of the facts.”

If the Trump Twitter opinion serves as a guide, it’s likely government accounts are going to have to adjust to taking a lot of lumps from critics, without deleting those comments or blocking users. And, that could get very messy. That said, messiness is nothing new in our democracy.

Well, what about businesses’ accounts on social media? Do they have to keep negative commenters? Doubtfully. In the U.S., the government is held to a different standard than a business when it comes to free speech. (Before we undertake this examination, I must disclaim that I neither attended law school nor stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. In the interest of full disclosure, I do hold a journalism degree and an abiding love of the First Amendment.)

If you have not memorized the Bill of Rights, here is a crib sheet with the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It’s that last phrase that sets the government apart. Just as it cannot limit free speech by citizens, by extension, it must be held accountable. Ergo, government speech, actions and decision-making must remain transparent and in the sunshine, for all to see.

But, if you are selling cupcakes (or dare I say wedding cakes?) and someone posts on your Facebook page that the cupcakes tasted terrible, feel free to delete that comment. Likewise, if your business Twitter account is being followed by Russian bots with half-naked women in the profile pictures, go ahead and block that noise. There are some social media platforms that do not give business owners much recourse aside from responding to negative reviews (Google and Yelp, for example).

Before you get carried away deleting posts from critics and blocking users, consider if any of them are expressing valid concerns. If so, respond directly, respectfully and courteously. In some cases, a perfunctory response may be appropriate. In other cases, a more robust dialogue may just be to your benefit.

Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives

Man with head in his hands

Twitter, Epithets and the End of Civil Discourse?

Ah, Roseanne, thank you for creating a national convulsion. I mean a delightful exercise in debate and an exhibition of the free marketplace of ideas in action, all on Twitter and Facebook. And, of course, we have cable news parroting social media commentaries on the subject while also trying to cover presidential politics.

And amazingly, all of these activities are intertwined with the president of the United States complaining about a TV network firing a star for making a racist comment about a former president’s adviser and another comedian apologizing for vile remarks about the president’s daughter. But wait, there’s more: yet another comedian getting into a Twitter spat with a CNN reporter.

This has got to be the worst reality show ever

As for the notion that Roseanne Barr’s dismissal from her eponymous show is some liberal media payback against conservatives, let’s start unpacking that by noting conservative does not equal racist. And, let’s recall how Kathy Griffin was tossed from CNN’s New Year’s Eve hosting gig for posing with an effigy of a decapitated President Trump. There are still lines people cannot cross without losing work.

If any employee of a good company walked into the office advocating presidential assassination or calling black people apes, they would be shown the door. And not because the employer wants to be politically correct. It’s because places of business maintain community standards and no one wants to be offended, scared or horrified while conducting business. Entertainers are in business too. If a media company doesn’t want them around, so be it. A business needs revenues and if advertisers balk or walk, revenues are lost.

Add to the lovely mix Samantha Bee’s comments about Ivanka Trump and the Trump administration strategy to dissuade illegal immigrants by separating them from their children upon crossing the border. Bee used a foul epithet for the female sex organ and suggested the president’s daughter flirt with her father to change his mind on policy matters. If, in response, Bee loses work because her show loses advertisers, so be it.

But, a distinction must be drawn. Griffin, who revolted many (including myself) by posing with a mockup of a bloody Trump head, piped up on Twitter today to argue with a CNN reporter that the White House press secretary should not have asserted, on behalf of the president, that Bee’s remarks are unfit for broadcast. I’ll give Griffin this: the government should not tell anyone what speech is allowed in this country. Granted, Sarah Sanders did not say Bee should be completely silenced or punished by the government. She just said the comments were unfit for broadcast. Oh, wait, Bee’s show is on cable, not broadcast over public airwaves! Nonetheless, I’ll agree with Griffin that Sanders’ remarks skirt a little too close to appearing as if the government seeks to shut down free speech. That doesn’t mean that Bee’s use of the c-word is not an affront to women or that Griffin’s assassination depiction is not insulting to our democracy (he was elected and no one should want to see a president of the United States killed).

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech

The government cannot regulate speech in the U.S. But the marketplace can decide it doesn’t want to pay for speech it doesn’t like.

As for government’s duty to the citizens, I’m still waiting for Trump to apologize for bragging he likes to assault women by the p-word, for mocking McCain’s heroism, for a White House staffer mocking McCain’s terminal illness, for questioning a judge’s legal impartiality in a fraud case against Trump because of his Mexican heritage, for mocking a reporter’s disability, for encouraging rally attendees to menace the working press, for calling all Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, for falsely accusing Special Counsel Mueller of trying to meddle in the midterm elections while actually investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, for twisting a call for racial justice into unpatriotic actions, and for changing his positions like a weathervane in a hurricane. He also owes us all an apology for butchering the English language.

The tone is indeed set at the top and he is, in effect, forcing all citizens to watch his reality show, in which the president lurches from one policy position to an opposing one and back to the original one; calls himself pro-law and order despite disparaging our criminal justice system (while it investigates his campaign); arbitrarily threatens or imposes tariffs on trade partners, and, each day, scorches more earth (see presidential pardons), etc. Unfortunately, that list of incompetency and antipathy is growing too.

Next blog: Will government social media accounts be forced to retain dissenting posts or other negative comments?

The shrill versus the truth

Triumph of the Shrill – Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

A classic example of war propaganda is Triumph of the Will, a lengthy film documenting the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Germany. You may recall how filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl shot and edited the footage to glorify Hitler as a great unifier, bringing order and greatness to a country that had suffered after WWI. It can also be seen as a rallying cry to prepare for more war — war against enemies abroad and internally. Ultimately, that regime created its enemies and then killed them under the guise of some fabricated truth.

Well, we know where that led. Still, of late, it has become fashionable for some Americans and others to deny the Holocaust. This sort of talk used to be decried. Instead, candidates for office pushing “counter-Semitism” might be met with relatively mild comments by established politicos supposedly distancing themselves.

Current affairs in the United States have devolved from culture wars to a Triumph of the Shrill. What used to be fringe ideas snowballed on social media into widely-held notions that even motivate voting and/or vigilantism (see #PizzaGate gunman). In our post-truth reality, a constantly equivocating president decried the press who report his contradictions – as well as unflattering truths – as the enemy of the people.

How did we get this far? In the early 1990s, as a cub reporter, I first encountered people who grumbled about the media. They struck me then as uneducated. Remember the candidate who said he loved the uneducated? Well, there you go.

In the post-truth world, education is elitist. Educated people have supposedly been indoctrinated by a liberal academia. What, though, is liberal? The shrill voices want you to believe the elitist liberals are going to take away other Americans’ rights. This falls into the category of projection: fascists will have you believe that if you don’t go along with them, you are doomed. The politics of fear is not new. But the willingness of more people to go along unquestioningly appears to be getting worse.

In a liberal arts education, students are not told what to think by professors. They are instructed to go figure it out, after researching facts and thorough consideration. And if you don’t fully support your argument, you are going to get a bad grade. Analogously, I came up in a Christian tradition where “discernment” is virtuous. You need to determine your faith, no one can spoon-feed it to you. By extension, Biblical inerrantists will tell you everything in the Bible is fact. Moreover, their translation and interpretation is correct. Period, no ifs, ands or buts. You do not need to be a linguist well-versed in concordances to realize that cannot be possible 100% of the time.

The Reign of Confusion

Bullying people into subscribing to your stated point of view is one tactic. Another mechanism is sowing confusion and disarray into a discourse. Better yet, contradict yourself and then go back again, creating subsets of audiences who hear what they wanted to hear, all the while thinking some other side is wrong.

Fake news falls into this category. It is spun together taking strands of truth and twisting them with outlandish lies. To bolster this dangerous bullsh!t, falsity peddlers will reintroduce old boogeymen, such as the Rothschilds, and marry them to some current event. (I saw a fake news story today on Facebook, ahem, reviving PizzaGate while tying the Clintons to the Rothschilds.

Are you too still seeing actual fake news on Facebook or elsewhere. You betcha you are. In yet another masterstroke of projection, real news is decried as fake news. Screaming fake news has proven more expedient and effective than actually attempting to disprove any real news. Truth is the best defense for libel. Logically, if you cannot defeat the truth, you will not sue for libel. Instead, just shout “fake news” and poof, the story should go away.

Last week, I attended my 25th college reunion at a private, liberal arts university. A professor gave a lecture providing a somewhat sociological explanation for Trump’s win. While attending the school, which has always had a student body that is conservative, I could not have possibly foreseen the possibility of such a presidency. Alumni audience members did not sound like fans of the president in their questions, although one offered up an explanation: he drew his support from people who feel ignored and disrespected.

I raised my hand and shared that I tried to tell some friends during the election that this candidate was regarded in New York as a con artist with dubious ties and big financial woes, and yet they would insist “he’s a great businessman” and “he tells it like it is.” In this opposite world, I had a question for the professor:

“Does the truth matter?” He concurred he is concerned about whether it does. So, I ask now, what will it take for the truth to matter again?

–Katharine Fraser

Image of stop button for disinformation.

Gatekeepers Matter More Than Ever in a Flood of Digital Disinformation

Remember the gatekeepers? The discerning people with ethics, intelligence and diligence who provided valuable information in a democracy? Do you know who they are? Read on.

The controversy engulfing Facebook and other social media comes down to the basic premise, or false supposition, that people believed in thinking if they set their privacy settings to lock down their profiles, then Facebook would protect their identities. Not so. Facebook is not a gatekeeper. On the contrary.

By joining a social network housed on the Internet, users became a commodity. Advertisers can target defined audiences by selecting interests. In my experience, there is nothing nefarious about wanting to target people – on an aggregated basis – who live in X city, who like Y product, etc. and position your ad for that type of product in front of them.

Of course, the problem is when Facebook users have been targeted with fake news, based on their psychological profile as gleaned from Facebook data. Now, it is crystal clear why certain friends and family were so inclined to share outrageously false stories masquerading as news.

As for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I agree, as a matter of fact, with some of what Steve Bannon said at an FT tech conference: data mining and targeted marketing is nothing new. The issue, though, is whether individual Facebook users had authority to give an app full access to their friends’ data and then the issue of how that data all was extracted for commercial purposes. Raise your hand and admit you clicked OK for that. So, you would think, OK, fine, so if me and my friends like cycling, we will probably see ads on Facebook for bikes, cycling clothes and accessories, etc. OK, maybe you realized that the data would go into a database and be categorized on an aggregated basis as percentages of people who like cycling, etc.

When it comes to politics, however, people’s hackles get raised when anyone tells them personally how to vote. After all, the United States has secret balloting. And, it’s kinda creepy to think that a further step was taken: if you fit certain personality styles, you received ads from fake news pages and the like. That’s where the manipulation comes in.

From a marketing perspective, it’s great to know you can target people demographically for particular products. A health nut is not going to be interested in the cupcakes recipe, presumably. So, you can direct your baking recipes at a bunch of sweet-tooths. But, the key consideration remains with the content, whether in an ad or not: are you authentic, and moreover, truthful?

The other issue is disclosure. In political advertising on TV, radio and print, we are used to the candidate stating they approved the message. But when a pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake news story came out of Macedonia or wherever, there was no disclosure of who paid for it. Same with all those Russian bots.

The problem isn’t the data sharing. The problem is what kind of messaging was used to target certain people to manipulate them and, “sow discord,” as the Mueller indictment against 13 Russians put it. That’s why it’s so ridiculous that Bannon could try waving all of this off by suggesting it’s exactly what Obama did. Do you remember any Russian propaganda on Facebook in 2008 and/or 2012 trashing John McCain or Mitt Romney? No, we needed to wait until 2016 to watch Trump do that himself. Which brings me back to gatekeepers.

You cannot rely on the social media platforms to self-regulate the content that is shared. They really do not want to be in the publishing business, which would make them accountable for every errant story or disinformation posted. Instead, you can take ownership of your feeds. For starters, follow real news organizations.

While many traditional news organizations have decimated their reporting staffs (have you noticed how your local TV news shares viral videos in lieu of reporting on city council actions?), those that remain in the news business do have protocols for vetting stories. Reporters separate fact from fiction and editors guide the process of ensuring stories are accurately told.

The emphasis on balancing viewpoints is waning by necessity because that construct was gamed. People with outrageous and misleading points could count on getting a word in for the sake of balanced news. Not anymore. The gatekeepers are pushing back, so when a falsity is stated (even by the president of the United States), the real news people note, for the record, that a comment is incorrect.

If you support an idea and hear an anchor or reporter contradicting it, try not to get defensive of the idea and person who said it. Think more deeply about whether it’s true and why they would want you to believe a lie. It’s not just the Russian trolls who spread falsity and actual fake news.

By Katharine Fraser, katharine@adroitnarratives.com