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

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

Depiction of cultural divide between liberal media and Southern stereotypes.

True Narratives: What Does Point of View Have to Do with It?

We’ve all heard the derisive term “liberal media” enough to easily conjure up the caricature: a bespectacled navel-gazer looking up from their sheltered environ to cast aspersion on flyover country.

Who exactly is the liberal media? When a certain Alaskan was running for national office and spoke condescendingly of the media elite, I wondered if she was talking about me. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a town with a view of “the city,” a.k.a. Manhattan. I was raised on a daily diet of morning news from The New York Times and The Star-Ledger, and snacked before dinner on tabloid copy from The New York Post and The Daily News. I graduated from an elite private college and worked as a journalist in East Coast cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.

Is the negative stereotype fair? I was forced to ponder this again after reading a recent Politico opinion piece on the East Coast media being stuck in the Acela corridor and not knowing why the rest of the country hates them. I can relate to this premise in that when I was working for the Baltimore Business Journal, my colleague Sonny made fun of the Washington Post for coming to nearby Baltimore anytime they needed to do a story on the hinterland instead of going anywhere else in the country, say the Midwest or Deep South, etc. Later, when I was working for American Banker in New York and was transferring to the Washington bureau, my editor Debra joked that I was emigrating back to the United States from Manhattan. Granted, I was going inside the Beltway.

But I did notice at my first job in Baltimore that I would meet people when I was doing a story or socializing that had an animus toward “the media” and I thought that was so bizarre. Of course, I was very much a part of that Acela corridor culture.

Later, I moved to Texas and I’ve had other experiences apart from the East Coast, and maybe my perceptions have changed. For instance, I don’t assume every gun owner is a murderer. My friends from home in New Jersey say that I have developed a twang, although they noted when I was in college in the South I was already saying y’all in lieu of you all or you guys.

And there is what I like to call a reverse provincialism for people in the New York metropolitan area who look down on people from other parts of the country, especially the South. When I went to a very Southern school, many of my friends were going to school in New England or elsewhere in the Northeast, per usual for New York suburban people, and they remarked, why are you going down there, they’re still fighting the Civil War, and Southerners are stupid. I recognized really quickly that the Northerners were definitely wrong on the latter assertion, especially when freshman year I was sitting in a 200-level British Literature course and the person with the most astute observations was sitting there in a CAT Diesel trucker hat and speaking with an incredibly thick Southern accent, but he was very eloquent and intellectually incisive.

This brings me back to agree in part with the Politico piece in those veins, but I also think there is a flipside groupthink in which people who condemn the media refuse to recognize that the media is often, if not nearly always, reporting the truth.

The media is a punching bag for all comers. To wit, I keep seeing Facebook posts from friends who are flaming liberals and die-hard right-wingers grousing that events which shake them are being omitted from coverage by mainstream media. Posts with oddly similar phrasing to fill in the blank, such as “anyone notice a lack of coverage of this shooting by a guy who doesn’t fit the lone wolf narrative?” or “anyone notice a lack of coverage of the Keystone oil spill?” A quick Google News search query will result in real news stories on the supposedly skipped stories.

Rather than blame the messenger, these critics are falsely accusing media of not providing the message at all. That’s a lot easier than dissecting the message. It’s also intellectually dishonest. It’s a cop-out to claim that a story was never reported just because you perceive it lacked reach or made the point you wanted it to hit home.

As for substantive critiques of news coverage, it’s also easy to blame the liberal media every time a set of known facts makes your side look bad. I learned this ad nauseam in, of all places, a weight-lifting class in college. The coach made us listen to Rush Limbaugh, who mocked mainstream media for its liberal leanings, according to this poll or the other. Yes, there are liberals in news media and there are also conservatives, the latter of whom in my observation tend to be less animated in their political views, which is a good thing in a newsroom setting.

How ironic is it that as we have more and more information available, we become more entrenched in old perceptions? Well, for starters, the volume of reliable, factual information might be shrinking on a proportional basis as traditional news outlets have shrunk their news staffs. Some people, ever so disbelieving of liberal media, glommed onto what they perceived to be alternative news that is actually fake news. Some information consumers seem more comfortable with fabrications from abroad than factual stories from the East Coast.

What is the solution? I agree the so-called liberal East Coast media should spend more time out and about in the rest of the country. They should also examine whether they are telling such stories as if they are foreign correspondents. Having lived in Texas for 11 years, I hear a certain tone in news reports that betrays a certain degree of ignorance about Southern states’ demographics, cultures and subcultures, and political viewpoints.

Embedding within a domain gives the narrator an opportunity to be more authentic in telling more than just the facts. Being close to a subject to truly see its three dimensions not only provides authority, but a veracity for all of a story’s audiences.

This may be where the liberal media stereotype arises: the writer is writing for their home audience, specifically their editor, rather than a broader audience. The point of view is not just that of the teller, but of the receiver. To achieve a better narrative, tell the story to a more intentional audience. Go beyond the audience you already know and strive to reach new target audiences. Maybe then, they will hear you.

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Angry woman pumps fist with fiery backdrop.

Fake news, Fake Reviews and Prevailing Truth

Recently, a real news outlet covered the story of an airport gate temper tantrum by a grown woman. The story seemed sympathetic to her plight as an aggrieved customer. A Facebook friend and I had diametrically opposed views of her rant, which came after the airport was closed due to high winds. Frankly, I think she should have been kicked out of the airport. If I had been a traveler at the gate, I would have been rather put out having to put up with her.

What does that have to do with digital marketing and social media? I liken this screaming maniac to the negative review frustration felt by businesses when a raving lunatic trashes their business on Yelp, Facebook or other outlet.Angry woman pumps fist with fiery backdrop. I’ve seen this happen a few times and it’s awful for a business owner to be on the receiving end of an unfair review. Some examples:

  • A customer had not paid in full, but wanted the products she ordered already and accused the business owner of being a criminal in a Yelp review
  • An ex-employee apparently relapses and accuses more than one former employer of being crooks

I bet you have seen many of these examples. We rely on Yelp for road trip dining and it never fails to amuse me how ridiculous the negative reviews are, such as a Denny’s customer poo-pooing the butter substitute packets. The only time I have ever been truly scared away by a review was in reference to bed bugs at a hotel. I’m not sure I want to provide guidance to the libel slingers of the world, but tossing around bed bug allegations can be damaging.

Admittedly, I don’t have any hotels as clients, but my advice is generally the same no matter what your business.

Respond in way that is generic and professional. Provide your policy in a way that hints at the context of the complaint. (We’re so sorry if our all sales are final policy presented a frustration for you…) Do not meet the mud-slinger at their level and don’t get into specifics to rebut them. This is not a trial and you are not a litigator. If the material is so objectionable that you think it needs legal review, by all means, call an attorney.

Report the negative view as harassment or a violation of the community standard of the platform. Each is a little different, but those flagging mechanisms are available. Usually, you just need to right-click on an arrow to get to the report post prompts. If you cannot wait for Facebook to get around to pulling a negative rating, you could remove the rating function on your business page. Unfortunately, it does not let you cherry-pick which reviews to keep or delete. If you must immediately pull the shade on reviews, go to edit page info and change the category from local business to another category, such as company.

Take a deep breath. It is highly unlikely to end up as bad as #pizzagate, where a fake news story, a.k.a. absurd conspiracy theory, led a gunman to show up at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in search of heinous criminal behavior allegations being spread ad infinitum on social media. Reflect on the full context. Do you have a lot of positive reviews to counteract the negative one?

Maybe your report on a review will be taken in account and the rant removed (I’m please to say that happened for a business I know today). Or maybe, customers and prospective customers will take the negative review with a big grain of salt or see it for what it is: someone unfairly taking their problem out on your business, like the airport meltdown lady.

Another possibility, is that the abuse Comet Ping Pong faced was so egregious and extensive that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Yelp etc. are going to need to respond to a growing outcry from reasonable people that they recognize they are indeed publishing platforms and not just technology companies. This means they will have to accept some accountability for what they allow to fester and spread on their platforms, just like a publisher.

Either way, the key thing for your business is to define it yourself, with the help of happy customers. Don’t just ask people to “like” you on Facebook. Encourage them to check in and post comments on the products and services they buy. Post regularly to your page with stories about your industry, specials you are offering and special guests that may come in. Post videos to Instagram and Facebook. I’ve seen video being rewarded on Facebook with more reach than written posts alone.

Remember to put some goodwill into the universe by checking in and reviewing your favorite businesses too! Getting an oil change and surfing the web from your phone? Check in! Eating an amazing Thai food dinner at a restaurant you hadn’t tried before? Review it! You’re helping those businesses just like you want your customers to help you.

And remember, you cannot make everyone happy. See below where, after I praised my food processor in a Facebook comment on a news story, another consumer criticized it with a bad experience from decades ago. Please bear in mind that negative comments will often be taken less seriously than you think. Do not let negative comments keep you out of social  media. It is here to stay.Facebook comments about Cuisinart quality on a Washington Post article about a recall.

A smart phone revealing a lack of authenticity.

Death of Credibility, Draw of Content Authenticity

The best content you see on social media is truly from a real source. Remember the Chewbacca lady or the guy singing about the Patti LaBelle sweet potato pies? I personally love The Pioneer Woman and if she isn’t writing those Facebook posts herself, I will be shocked. At the same time, though, our world is awash in fake content.

As a former journalist, it’s disheartening to see the growth and success of fake news sites, which popped up like mushrooms after a rain during the U.S. presidential election season. Instead of being dismayed, many people are plucking these fake stories and serving them up to all their friends on Facebook.

For its part, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg maintains that fake news is a miniscule portion of the content shared on the social network. In a Facebook post, he also warns that “I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.” Granted, it doesn’t want to become a giant editorial operation arguing finer points of facts, satire, context, etc. with millions of armchair auteurs.

Real news will have to combat the hucksters. In the free marketplace of ideas, it’s up to the truth purveyors to push out the falsity. Remember that fake story about an FBI agent found dead after investigating Hillary Clinton’s email? I absolutely loved that the Denver Post, a real news organization, not only rebutted the story, but revealed that the fake news outlet has a physical address for a tree in a parking lot. Indeed, the Denver Post slapped a great headline on that exposure: “There is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, despite that Facebook post you saw.”

Beware of feel-good fake stories

The paradox is people who believe the click bait bull dookie may also love authentic stories, but they may not always be able to quickly tell the difference. A friend in Houston posted to Facebook a feel-good story about Clint Eastwood praising the good folks of Plainview, Texas, for helping him with rental car troubles. I smelled B.S., especially given the poor quality of the article writing. I googled the matter and found that Clint Eastwood purportedly had the same wonderful things to say about the good people of Lake Jackson, Texas, as well as Florence, Kentucky. If you go to the websites with these stories, you will see a whole bunch of other headlines that make the National Enquirer look like The New York Times. Snopes found a whole host of similar hoax stories about celebrities and car troubles:

This is why it is critical to make sure that you only share real articles for your business Facebook page or other social media account for your marketing. If your business shares a fake story, then your credibility is on the line. Customers would think you are either gullible yourself or trying to put something over on them. Either way, you would end up looking bad.

sell the truth: BE yourself

Besides fake stories, there is another category of inauthentic content on social media: pre-packaged content used for business sectors and used again and again and again. Unbeknownst to a local veterinarian, the company that used to manage his animal hospital’s website was for some automated reason still posting to Facebook for its account. A smart phone revealing a lack of authenticity.This content publisher was also posting to the Facebook page of a competing animal hospital nearby. And, surprise, surprise, the content was identical. The exact same posts made to the Facebook pages with the exact same blog links. Would the pet parents who like either page really learn something from the blog? Maybe.

Would it be better to have content created specially about that business for that business? Yes. For example, I share articles on home design for a home renovation client. We also share pictures and videos of remodeling job sites to show how beautiful his company’s work is. What was one of the most successful posts ever for this client? I linked to the About Us section of the company’s website, used a picture of the business owner and posted about his customer service philosophy. It took off!

Why? Because it is real. Because it is specifically about that particular business and how it delivers. Because it is authentic. Sell yourself when it comes to content marketing. It makes you credible and validates your business. That is what you want people to buy.

For more information on content creation, contact consultant Katharine Fraser of Adroit Narratives.