Fake News, False Equivalency, and The Problem Facing Brands

Misinformation, propaganda and other forms of “fake news” have been around forever, but they have taken on new life in an era where the majority of news is consumed through social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Even as those platforms take steps to identify and curtail the spread of misinformation, their efforts have done little to change the conditions that lead smart people to believe that misinformation when they see it. Those conditions have less to do with the content itself than the way it is distributed and presented on social platforms. News organizations are finding that social platforms make it hard to differentiate their authentic journalism from fake journalism. Any brand that wants their brand messaging to be taken seriously should look at this as a cautionary tale.

First, let’s acknowledge a truth about social media: The feed makes everything look the same. It’s easy to take that for granted, but it is a critical, and sometimes fatal, factor. All posts render in the same font and same image-headline layout, regardless of the source, and are distributed in the feed on the basis of an algorithm that prioritizes engagement over editorial considerations. So when an investigative Washington Post piece appears next to your crazy aunt’s rant on Obamacare, there’s a flattening effect. That flattening makes it easy to draw a false equivalency between those posts, as though they treated as of equal weight and importance. This false equivalency is the real problem with fake news. The problem isn’t fake news, per se, but the fakeness of all information within a social feed.

While once the nation had to wait until 6:30 to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News or could only experience The New York Times in print, news in effect took place within its own consecrated space. Even when the web came along, The Times could confer its own legitimacy merely by displaying its logo and font. The News Feed has disemboweled such trappings by making The New York Times look the same as Breitbart, The Wall Street Journal and the same as Occupy Democrats. In other words, total falsehoods look the same as investigative reports and the same as your college roommate’s vacation photos. The flattening is there, and it puts the most prestigious journalism on the same level as outright lies that teenagers in Russia devise from their basements.

So despite recent steps by Facebook to flag fake news, it’s still difficult for real news to appear legitimate in the context of the social feed, and it’s still too easy for false information to be taken seriously. Proper context is what makes the real news feel real. It is this context that bestows legitimacy.

Despite pouring billions into advertising on social platforms, household name-brands are finding themselves subject to a similar flattening effect. Only in their case, the flattening effect comes from to the uniformity of ad units. No matter how much money they spend, the best creative from the most well-known household name brands will wind up looking like a Facebook post or a tweet. Coke will look like Facebook, not Coke. Nike will look like Facebook, not Nike. Everything that is special about Coke and Nike will get absorbed. That’s the inevitable cost of doing business in social you exchange creative impact for access to the feed. The biggest budgets from the most recognizable brands will struggle to make something that stands out.

So as the debate around Fake News rages on, see it as a warning for brands. The flattening effect doesn’t care whether your brand is journalistic objectivity or a century of iconic American marketing. It will consume it all the same.

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