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

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

Facebook user settings for advertiser preferences.

Delete Facebook or Take Back Your Facebook?

Unless you have gone off the grid due to internet privacy concerns and moved into a Unabomber-styled cabin in the deep woods, you are aware that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is getting grilled today on Capitol Hill.

Many Facebook users feel torn over whether to stay on the platform if their data was used in ways they had not considered, i.e. be used to attack a U.S. presidential candidate and support another, from a foreign entity no less. Still, users now may recall the Facebook app quiz disclosures that your profile was being used, and maybe even apps that said it would look at your list of friends.

One message Zuckerberg gave in his testimony is that Facebook is working to give users more control over how ads are served to them. Remember, you are getting use of the platform for free in exchange for receiving ads in your feed. If you are OK with that, then maybe you want better ads. Or, as the CEO himself put it: “People don’t like ads, but people really don’t like ads that are irrelevant.”

The platform is going to make improvements to make clear who the ad sponsors are and also put long-overdue controls on political and issue ads.

When I first reviewed my ad profile, it seemed Facebook’s algorithm thinks I am an African-American soccer mom. Well, close, I am none of the above. I also X-ed out these two categories from applying to me: soccer and “housemate-based households.” (I have lived with my boyfriend for several years and we have never considered ourselves housemates.)

But, now, you can define yourself to Facebook with more accuracy than whoever it thinks you are based on your likes and other activity on the platform and beyond. You can also instruct Facebook not to incorporate information about other websites you visit. Some of the ad interests for me I recognize as topics I have researched on the web. Others I haven’t the faintest idea why Facebook thinks apply to me.

Facebook Advertiser Preferences Includes Some Oddities

To start informing Facebook who you really are, go to settings and then click on Ads for Ad Preferences. You will then see Your Interests, Advertisers You’ve Interacted with, Your Information and Ad Settings. For instance, for the latter, I toggled to “No” this: Ads based on your use of websites and apps.

Here is what I removed from “Interests”:

  • Sacramento Police Department
  • Amateur Astronomy
  • Homemaking
  • Education
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Fire Protection
  • Comedian
  • Non-profit
  • Masonry
  • Biology
  • Confederate States of America
  • The Academy Awards
  • Perfection
  • Tassel
  • Wide Receiver
  • Victory
  • Seawater
  • North (yes, the compass direction)
  • Regions of France
  • People’s Liberation Army Navy
  • Burkina Faso

As for Advertisers I have supposedly interacted with, I only am a customer of three and only recognized a couple of others. The preponderance were entities I have no recollection of interacting with or never even heard of. Of the first dozen I viewed, I only retained Cirque de Soleil.

Facebook advertiser preferences screenshot.

Could someone please explain why “Congress” has the Dunkin’ Donuts logo in the listing of Facebook advertisers in my account preferences?

Several clicks later, I kept Mopar because we have Jeeps. I also recognized Compare TX-2 Candidates and a couple of politicians in my state I actually follow. Similarly, there was Filters Fast, from which I ordered once and they have since followed me around the internet, so much so, that I don’t want to buy from them again. I X-ed them out.

Moreover, I’ve never heard of Hungry Howie’s Pizza or some of these other characters. The following examples are advertisers I don’t care about and deselected:

  • Americans for Prosperity (several state chapters but not my state)
  • Likewise, a bunch of politicians in other locations
  • Protect Jersey Jobs
  • Otter for Idaho
  • El Chapo (the TV show, not the actual guy)
  • Disney Baby
  • Hot Women & Hot Cars
  • Senate Leadership Fund
  • Several local NYC televisions stations

The Advertisers list went on and on and took about 10-15 minutes to go through. Amazingly, there were only three entities from which I have actually made purchases: Texas Hill Country Olive Company, Divers Alert Network and the New York Times.

Now that I have gone through this exercise, I look forward to seeing more relevant ads. I also plan to visit the Ad Preferences area again to ensure it stays somewhat accurate.

 

Cartoon of unhappy and happy customers thinking about reviews.

Dear Consumer: Do a Small Business a Favor and Write Reviews

Social media is all about personal connections, recommendations and reviews. Whether someone is urging you to agree with them on a political point or raving about their new favorite restaurant in the neighborhood, you will care more the closer you are to them.

This extends to reviews as well. If you are searching for a business on Google, Yelp or wherever, you are likely to not only read the reviews, but be swayed by them. This may be especially true on NextDoor or other apps that are neighborhood-centric.

Unfortunately, just like there is fake news, there are fake reviews. Judging by a long thread on the Facebook help desk, this is a widespread and longstanding problem. But, there are also true reviews that can be devastating for reputation management. All it takes is one person with a suboptimal experience to make someone else think twice.

In addition, there seems to be a cadre of self-appointed food critics out there who really go out of their way to heap on the snark with ample sides of hypercriticism.

What can a small business do? It’s simple: get good reviews from happy customers. Serve them well. Ask for reviews at the point of sale or in emailed invoices. Also, make sure you encourage customers to provide feedback, including constructive criticism, directly through a customer service channel, thus giving you an opportunity to make amends and diminishing the chances of a review rant appearing.

What Comes Around Goes Around

Ask yourself when was the last time you gave a business a review? Given I am engaged in social media marketing, I always feel obligated, if I enjoy an experience, to write a great review. Some recent examples:

For my dentist (Edge Dental) on Google: “Came back for my cleaning today and Dr. Lai answered all my questions. He also scrutinized an area of concern we will check again if it doesn’t improve in a couple of weeks. Great office staff and perfect location on Memorial Drive. I know I am in good hands.”

For my favorite Thai restaurant (Thai Chefs) on Yelp: “The last time I had Thai food this good, I was at an upscale restaurant in Bangkok. This place is a cut above. The food is outstanding. The service is attentive and warm. My first time here and I can’t wait to come back!”

For my favorite auto shop (AAMCO Bellaire) on Google: “I had a check engine light another mechanic couldn’t figure out and then found out if I wanted the dealer to look at it, I would need to drop off the vehicle for at least 48 hours. Beal’s shop ran the codes and asked about the idle speed (like the previous mechanic) and then came up with the correct solution: buy some premium fuel and run it down the highway. That worked! This is my place now for oil changes. Also, I have thought about lifting my Jeep and Beal cautioned me about possible complications. He then spoke to the lift-kit shop and reported back to me that those guys would indeed do it properly. That’s above and beyond service!”

Call it good karma. Put positive vibes out into the universe by giving good online reviews and good reviews may come back to you. Again, though, the best way to generate good reviews is to ask happy customers to write them. It just takes a moment for a beautiful review to blossom.

For more information on social media marketing, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.

 

 

The thinker with social media icons.

Facebook’s New Year’s Resolution and What It Means for Branded Content

You may have heard that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s Resolution is to fix Facebook. After a barrage of criticism about the platform’s easy manipulation by fake news purveyors and other propagandists, as well as questions about nefarious Russian influence via social media on the U.S. presidential election, Zuckerberg finally acknowledged the platform has problems.

So, what’s his solution? Ironically, his vision seems to suggest suppressing real news. When his grand plan (without details of how the algorithm works exactly) was announced, news publishers and brands with Facebook pages appeared to be the losers. Facebook explained, in a video, that interactions between people would be favored over content from brands and publishers.

And investors were not thrilled either that the platform’s leadership even suggested they want people to use Facebook less. The stock’s value dropped 4.5% in reaction to the announced shift. Has anything changed in practice yet? We’ll need at least a month’s data, if not more, to compare the engagement analytics for Facebook business pages’ organic posts and see if there is a big hit to reach. The cynics see this as a ploy for Facebook to force businesses to buy more ads. Well, that’s not necessarily a bad idea, even before the changes.

For example, I particularly like how Sierra Club created a new line of communication with a Facebook ad. I have not liked their page or posts before that I recall. Suddenly, a cheerful ad asked if I wanted a positive daily message from the Sierra Club, accompanied by a nature photo. Why, of course, I would, especially with the constant barrage of bad news! Now, every day I get a warm, cuddling feeling from the Sierra Club.

The key is crafting content, either for organic posts or ads, that speak to a specific need or desire of the consumer. That’s always been the case (think of the old ring-around-the-collar TV ads). Now, you’ll want to consider messages that go beyond, but don’t stray, from your product or service.

This is an outstanding example by a company I never heard of until a friend shared their video on Facebook. They are in the travel booking business and created a shareable video about the pains of airline travel to which most humans can relate, especially those of us who typically fly coach.

What is compelling about the video is not the actual content. Yes, it’s humorous. But, most importantly, it’s shareable. Again, I did not see it in an ad. It came into my feed as it was posted by a friend (a real-life friend) who often shares viral comedic content spritzed in among her posts about her daily life. She is the ideal user, by Facebook’s criteria, because she is sharing positive content among friends. And, Facebook says that “person to person [interaction} will be more valuable than person to page.”

Granted, Facebook’s mission is to provide “deeper, more meaningful interactions with people you care about.” What exactly does this mean? I doubt it means Facebook will start placing greater weight on debates among friends about existential philosophy or exegesis examinations of religious texts.

Here’s what Facebook says the changes will reflect: “Connections to people in your network will get the biggest boost because interacting with people you are close to is more meaningful. We’re also going to prioritize exchanges that reflect more time and care.” They want to emphasize discussions that are “associated with a greater sense of well-being.” Hmmm, that would seem to indicate that discussions about real news and politics may receive less emphasis. After all, Facebook said, “over time, we believe people will see more posts from people they’re connected to and less content from publishers.” But, I can tell you, that my Facebook feed continues to regular stream to me posts by Axios, the Washington Post, The Hill, the New York Times, Texas Tribune and other news brand pages on which I regularly comment or to which I react, often with the wow emoticon.

“Facebook was built to connect you to the stories and people that matter most, so we’re going to keep listening to you and working hard to make sure that’s what you see everyday,” the company says. Personally, I hope that means I still see plenty of posts by news pages because that matters most to me. Professionally, my new year’s resolution is to tell more stories on clients’ pages about what matters most to their audiences. And, we’ll be sharing that content on other platforms as well.

Katharine Fraser is a writer, editor and content coordinator.

How to Decide Which Social Media Marketing is Right for Your Business

When it comes to deciding how to go about starting social media marketing for your business, start by determining what aligns with what you sell. For example, if you own a restaurant, you ought to be on Yelp and Facebook because that is where diners seek information on local eateries. Moreover, before you pick which social media suits your business, find the medium that matches your strengths. It also is a matter of which media you will enjoy using. Are you a raconteur? Then maybe podcasts are the way to go for your storytelling. Do you like video? Would filming what you do make sense to convey to customers and prospects what the value is in your product or service? For example, I recently came across on Twitter a link to a YouTube video of a bathroom remodel. The craftsmanship and diligence on display was absolutely mesmerizing. Seeing how much knowledge and skill went into preparing the shower installation, I would certainly understand if the job quote from this contractor came with a significant price tag. I would certainly see the value. I would also trust the contractor because his video showed exactly what happens behind the scenes, behind the tile and under the shower. See if you are comfortable in front of the camera. Just try it on your phone to test the waters. If not yourself, is there something about your process you could put on video? Video, obviously, has become a constant in digital marketing for a good reason: it is compelling to viewers.

Good Writing Matters

Same goes with still images. The greatest blog in the world might go unnoticed if it isn’t accompanied by a picture – even something as simple as a photo of the author. Are you or someone on your team a strong writer? Which social media call for good writing? All of them really, but clean, tight, illustrative and professional writing is especially important on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Even Pinterest requires strong writing for catchy, inspirational or informative captions for the images that people pin. The eye-catching and addictive Pinterest is popular with women who craft, cook and shop, but it has other useful applications, such as organizing and sharing business guidelines, study guides and consumer instructions. Are there product guides you could easily share with Pinterest that would be helpful to customers and prospects?

Map Out Your Social Media Campaign

Plan what you want to get across in social media marketing and at what time. If your business has seasonal cycles, this is simple. Decide who from the business is going to contribute to creating content and give them a schedule with firm deadlines. There is a saying that nothing would get done if not for the last minute. If people don’t have a deadline, they will not perform. Set a schedule, period, no, ifs ands or buts.

Don’t Tell the Whole Story

There are a few reasons not to make your content the be-all, end-all of your subject matter. First of all, you don’t want to give away the farm. Instead, you are giving people a reason in their shopping decision-making process to proceed further with your business. Besides, the be-all, end-all is simply too long for social media and blogs. Set out to write 500 words. This is approachable for your reader and easier for your time management.

Social Media is a Two-Way Street

Digital marketing is not an add-on or an elective anymore – it’s a basic necessity in validating your business. It’s like the lottery, you need to be in it to win it. No one will find you if you are not putting yourself out there. Social media, blogs and websites provide validation for your business. If a word-of-mouth referral is given by a happy customer for your wonderful business, then what will that prospect find online about you? An old website? A social media account with no activity? You want to be engaged to show you are active and give customers a strong sense they get what you are about. You should also set aside time to follow others, including competitors, in your sphere of influence. Social media is a source of news about your business space. Where did a competitor open a new location? What products are customers seeking? Be in the social media loop to be part of new trends and growth for your business.