Today everything can be wrong and true at the same time. What does this mean for our communication? A few thoughts on the New Year. Starring: Napoleon, Trump and other influencers.
When we founded our communications agency ten years ago, I, like many others, was inspired by the opportunities offered by the “Web 2.0” Internet: citizens and consumers can finally have a say, companies can speak more directly to their target groups. There is more competition for the attention of readers and viewers, which would ultimately lead to a higher quality of the classic mass media (which already had considerable problems at that time!). In this process, politicians and companies become more transparent and the consumer more responsible. The election of Obama, the debates surrounding the financial crisis and the Arab spring that started in December 2010 initially confirmed this assessment.
A dark spell over the Internet
If one follows the public discourse today, it seems as if the expectations have been reversed. Did we end up in a mirror world? The fun, new communication tools of yore seem to have been cast with a dark spell. The most powerful man in the world has spread lies at least 7,500 times since he took office (the Washington Post is one of them). And yes, unfortunately, he actually speaks very directly to his target groups via his own channels. Authoritarian rulers elsewhere are transforming social networks into a digital Gestapo with a propaganda unit. Arab spring has turned out to be a democratic winter. “Alternative media”, sometimes lavishly financed by foreign governments, flood the web with imaginary stories that are massively shared — because they reinforce mistrust of a supposed “establishment”. The classic media like the german SPIEGEL are falling for swindlers like Claas Relotius (which is certainly not an isolated case). Less dramatic, but remarkable, is the extent to which the ideal of beauty of young people is inspired by the instagram channels styled with photo filters, such as those of Amanda Cerny in the USA, Becky Li in China, or Lisa and Lena in Germany. Reality becomes Disneyland. Everything can be wrong and true at the same time.
My personal favorite fake of 2018 fits this: The unknown US rocker Threatin staged himself as a superstar with bought followers and booked himself for a complete European tour (which ended after a short time due to lack of resonance). This stunt in turn made him famous all over the world. Satisfied, he writes on his website: “I turned an empty room into an international headline. If you are reading this, you are part of this illusion”.
The longing for the real
But when we can no longer judge whether something is just an illusion, then our basic trust falters. We distance ourselves as human beings, as society, step by step from ourselves. This in turn fires longings: After a “good old order”, after less complexity in everyday life, profession and politics, after orientation. And as paradoxical as it may seem in view of the triumphal march of the liars: for authenticity.
The excessive occupation with Fake News alone (Google News provides 250 million German search results for this alone) shows that we apparently miss the opposite painfully. It is well known that we humans are primarily concerned with the things that we lack. He who truly loves does not speak of love. He who is healthy, not about his health. If you don’t miss the real thing, don’t complain about the fake.
The longing for the real in turn explains the rise of the influencers who film, photograph and write “like you and me” out of their everyday lives. She explains the success of the scripted documentary soaps on TV. She also explains the long-lasting, quasi-religious transfiguration of Steve Jobs or the multi-entrepreneur Elon Musk. Its tantrums over the net may have been problematic for the SEC. But his fans cheered the unfiltered comments.
Unparalleled in this discipline is Donald Trump: His ranting tirades in the TV duels before his election seemed refreshingly unadulterated compared to the professional fiddling about of professional politicians, which many people apparently perceive as wrong. Even though Trump is lying all over the place, he expresses fantasies and fantasies (in which he differed only slightly from the other republican candidates by the way). Candidate Ben Carson, for example, said that the Holocaust could have been avoided if German citizens had only had enough weapons), he seems as authentic as only a professional reality TV star can be.
Authenticity is not an attitude, but an observation
Authenticity does not initially describe a value system or an attitude. It is not the opposite of a lie, but a simple statement. Authentic is who acts out of himself and in the best case does what he says. This instills respect, as Goethe already knew: “He who does not command himself always remains a servant.” In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” So be yourself and be the one who tells others who you are.
Authentic people and organizations led by them stand out in a fragmented high-speed world. They create the impression that they act self-determinedly and self-actually and do not exhibit behaviour caused by others. This is not only an opportunity for narcissists, manipulators or conspiracy theorists, even if the headlines of recent months may show otherwise.
For the supposed victory of the “dark side of the Internet” is just a reading of the events — perhaps as a counter-narration to the naive ideas of salvation of the beginning. First of all, the manipulation attempts of our time are not new. Napoleon himself was of the opinion that it wasn’t the truth that mattered, but what people thought was the truth. In a great essay for the American literary magazine The Paris Review in early 2018, Nina Martyris explained how the emperor had notices interspersed with lies posted on the walls of churches and doors and thus — beyond the press — spoke directly to his subjects. About 100 years later, H.G. Wells summarized for the New York Times: “Modern means of communication lend power. Print, telephone, radio and so on allow strategic considerations and technical instructions to be transmitted to a large number of associated centres. (…) Thoughts and opinions now have an effect greater than the power of any individual personality.”
In this way, the net helps to uncover even the most sophisticated machinations — as shown, for example, by the research on football leaks. The Washington Post can now publicly count the lies of politicians and document them for a worldwide audience. Social media are essential for rapid communication in the event of disasters. Despite all the data scandals, billions of people still enjoy staying in touch via Whatsapp, WeChat and so on. Of course, hierarchies and the authority of companies, authorities and officials in society are under attack: Heroes fall off pedestals. That’s a good thing. Insanity becomes more visible, and decision-makers must constantly justify their actions publicly. If Ronald Reagan had already tweeted, we would know more about his astrologer and his constant fear of the biblical Armageddon — the historical picture would probably be different. It would be the same with Konrad Adenauer’s Facebook account. And of course, young people always orient themselves to the beauty ideal of their time. It used to be the Bravo, now it’s the Instagram. Just faster, shriller, more short-lived.
We have more in our hands than we think
The healing promises of the social, mobile Internet may not have been fully fulfilled in the past ten years. Manipulators have realized that the presentation of honesty and authentic behavior on the public stage brings them enormous advantages, combined with the boundlessly fast dissemination of information and an obviously crazy media system. Internet companies have changed from saviours to technocratic monopolists. The revolution was followed by a counterrevolution. But don’t panic: This has also been the case for the French since 1789. As we know, France has long been a democracy (and Napoleon died lonely of stomach cancer at the age of 51 on St Helena).
There is therefore no reason for a swan song in 2019 either. We live in a world that has always been dominated by freedoms AND constraints. We can choose our friends, but not the country we are born in, nor the market environment of our industry, nor the conditions for communication. But we design our spaces, our relationships and the handling of media and their contents ourselves. With our head and our hands. Be it privately or on the job, as an entrepreneur or politician, as a company, brand or institution, as a marketing manager or agency employee. It is up to all of us to do this creatively and responsibly, even under the certainly tougher conditions. By finding our own way and not copying the success formulas of others, by acting out of ourselves and thus remaining authentic.
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Bernays, Edward: Propaganda. Berlin 2007
Buhrmann, Christoph; Schallehn, Mike: Konzeptualisierung von Marken-Authentizität. Bremen 2010.
Gilmore, James H. und Pine, Joseph: Authenticity. What Consumers Really Want. Boston 2007
Greene, Robert: Die 24 Gesetze der Verführung. München 2017
Hartleb, Florian: Die Stunde der Populisten. Schwalbach 2017
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