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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