Disinformation (AKA fake news): getting worse – or some progress in sight?

My line of work involves doses of politics and social media, so the topic of disinformation frequently comes up. What’s my take? Is it a great scourge of our age or a nuisance that has been blown slightly out of proportion?

I don’t for a minute wish to diminish the perils of disinformation, but I do think the truth sits somewhere in the middle. Of course, it can be terribly damaging. It helps nasties cement their power, and wannabes to attain it. It spreads untruths that can literally be deadly, such as the belief that vaccines cause autism. However, it’s often an easy scapegoat. We blame events we don’t like, such as the election of populists, on disinformation, while ignoring the negligence of mainstream business and political leaders, which has driven disaffection and inequality. Bots exploit disaffection and inequality, they can’t create it from thin air.

But is disinformation likely to become more or less pervasive? There are valid considerations on both sides, but it’s looking pretty bleak. Here are a few things to ponder on the matter, in no particular order.

  • Overall, media literacy is improving: it’s being taught in schools; governments and other public bodies are making it a priority
  • Kids’ bullshit radars are by and large getting better (based entirely on my interaction with teenagers in my family: I have no empirical evidence)
  • Social networks are playing ball (egged on by political and shareholder pressure). This is really important. Making it harder to use Facebook ads or to make money using Google AdSense will disincentivise
  • Trust in journalism is on the up (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  • Some governments are doing good, as is the EU: pushing it up the agenda, pressuring social networks, supporting good reporting, monitoring election processes, promoting media literacy programmes
  • It’s getting easier to fact-check: lots of fact checking sites exist, and they are being used quite widely

  • It’s hard to resist: highly emotive and subjective information (as disinformation tends to be) releases dopamine in the brain
  • Countering disinformation with facts might not work: confirmation bias means we actually strengthen our beliefs when given contrary evidence
  • Worst of all: disinformation has influenced plenty of major political events, and continues to do so
  • Nasties invest in disinformation and are getting more proficient at it (no sign of Russian bot farms shutting down)
  • Societies are increasingly polarised: anger and distrust means people are more likely to consume and share highly subjective, emotive disinformation
  • Audio and video manipulation will make disinformation harder to detect
  • 50% of people consume news less than weekly (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  • 70% of people have shared content having only read the title (Pew)
  • Journalism is under attack, from Trump’s America to Turkey and beyond
  • Many good media outlets are struggling: less time to fact check means disinformation gets through the cracks
  • Media reports on disinformation as news (think Trump), helping it spread
  • It’s hard to regulate. Where do you draw the line? Do Fox News and RT publish disinformation or are they just merely highly partisan? Who checks the fact checkers?

What have I missed? What have I downplayed or overplayed?  


A (wildly optimistic) take on modern-day communications

Plenty has been written about post truth, fake news, alternative facts et al. And it’s bleak. For good reason: while fake news alone cannot be blamed for the election of crazies and other alarming events, it does debase trust and delegitimise traditional figures of authority (think “experts”). Once citizens begin to believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, the crazies get to present themselves as peers or respectable alternatives, with all the scary ramifications that carries.

For communications professionals, fake news carries particular challenges. The organisations we represent may become victims of fake news. The thought of a carefully crafted, fact-based storyline, being discredited by a spate of bogus news stories, keeps many talented PR pros awake at night. Moreover, in a world of discredited experts and media, how does one build credibility if no one is credible in the eyes of a disillusioned public?

None of this is helped by the behaviours of members of the so-called elite. Modern day corporate scandals from Enron to VW, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires, arguably do far more damage than fake news (and allow fake news to be plausible in the first place).

Even the communications profession itself appears to have given up on truth. The UK Vote Leave Campaign was celebrated by PR Week, despite the many absurd inaccuracies it presented as fact last year. Just a month later, a Swedish campaign about the merits of eating organic food, won the top PR gong at Cannes Lions despite using highly questionable data.

BUT while not at all questioning the perils of fake news, might the doom and gloom be overblown? Is the scale of fake new exaggerated a tad, for instance? It involves subject matter on which people have strong opinions. Granted, that covers a lot of ground, and debates around politics, migration, trade, climate change and so forth are likely to be tarnished by fake news. But surely most topics, and channels, remain uncontroversial? Most (not all) of the communications work I advise my clients on is hardly going to make Russia Today or Breitbart’s hit-list in the morning.

And are we exaggerating the gullibility of those exposed to it? While the scale and prominence of fake news has never been so great, it is not a novelty. Think of the doctors sponsored by tobacco companies arguing that Brand X cigarettes were great for digestion through to anti-everything activists peddling pseudo-science today. Each wave has helped to make people’s bullshit gauges more effective. How many people’s views are nowadays truly shifted due to fake news? Is it not arguably consumed more by people who like that it cements their own world view? Is fake news, and people’s ignorance and credulity in relation to it, not just a handy scapegoat?

Which brings us to a potential silver lining. Corporate and media misdeeds are the main root of mistrust; fake news merely reinforces it (read Robert Philips for a longer and better take on this here). Might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saintly organisations. Activists have for years attacked certain banks, agrichemical and oil companies more than others because they are poor corporate citizens, making their attacks more credible. Genuinely behaving well (not just having slick spokespeople and pretty communications material) is a precious long-term investment, against fake news and much else.

There is also a potential communications upside (again, very spurious and with plenty of caveats). Might the diffusion of fake news represent an opportunity for some organisations to enhance reputations (and even build new revenue streams) by becoming purveyors of high quality information? Many people are appalled by the fake news phenomenon. With BS sensors on high alert, they are less likely to trust little-known news sources, bloggers or citizen journalists. Recognisable and trusted organisations could help fill the information gap through high-quality content provision if they play their hand right (read/listen to more on this phenomenon by the clever chaps at CMI here and here).

Again, there are enormous caveats: in our age of elite mistrust, organisations with less than stellar reputations, a poor record of corporate citizenship, or who patently engage in spin rather than honest and authentic communications, will not succeed. And information needs to be high quality, credible, informative, useful and/or entertaining. But those who tick the many boxes and can become trusted, high-quality sources, may well (perversely?) benefit from the fake new phenomenon.

Does media matter?

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.

Europeans and Obama (not another post on Obama?!)

As if enough hadn’t been said or written already (and I don’t profess to be an expert, by any stretch). An interesting thought nonetheless: why are we Europeans still so enamoured of Obama?

A mix of some of the following perhaps.

To many, he’s still a rockstar

The US and Obama are always big news, but not that big compared to what’s happening here, and the fact is, he’s miles away and can’t by nature have as much impact on our day to day as our own politicians. The freshness and star appeal of 2008 thus hasn’t waned as much as it might have done if we’d seen him dominate the headlines night after night or if we could realistically blame him for our own ills. So as trite and sensationalist as it may seem, as far as we can tell, he still nearly looks and sounds the part – just as he did when he captivated the world back in 2007-08.

If not a rockstar, he’s the sort of American we feel most comfortable with

Right or wrong, we see him as professorial, smart, honest, engaging without being overbearing, seemingly willing to listen rather than act on instinct. This contrasts with the type of American some of us feel slightly uncomfortable with i.e. unashamedly brash, impulsive and unselfconscious.


Despite his relative disinterest in our continent, we still think his values are European in nature: his penchant for soft power, universal healthcare, wanting at least in principle to shut down Guantanamo, gay rights, women’s rights et al. Sure, Guantanamo remains open, the healthcare bill has no public option, the use of drone attacks under his watch has been boosted, his support of gay marriage is a fairly recent development BUT we assume that these are compromise measures, not his personal predilection.

We don’t care about his supposed biggest failure (and in any case it’s not entirely his fault and it seems piffling compared to our mess)

The recovery has been slow and unemployment remains too high? Big deal, that’s their issue, and in any case, the US is doing better than we are; frankly their woes seem piffling compared to the Eurozone travails.

The Republicans partly got us into this mess in the first place

Most of all, the reason many Europeans remain keen on Obama is the other guys. True or not, the 2008 collapse which then led to all sorts of other troubles, none more so than the Eurozone crisis, is blamed on Obama’s predecessor and his party.

The Republicans are creepy

A lot of us still view the Republicans as a sinister lot: virtual pantomime villains; certainly not the responsible party of smaller government and sensible regulation. Rumsfeld’s eerie glare into the camera as he said Old Europe didn’t matter and the subsequent cataclysm that was Iraq still grates. As does – to many – their view on universal healthcare, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation, guns, the death penalty and gay rights, as well as their hawkishness on foreign relations. More than belief, it’s perhaps the tone used by many in the party: the visceral hatred and virtual foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of another opinion on the aforementioned issues makes us feel as tad uncomfortable as this sort of belligerence is usually reserved for extreme fringe parties on this side of the Atlantic. Couple that with many Republicans’ endorsement and continual espousal of their particular notion of American exceptionalism which we would dispute, to put it mildly, and it’s perhaps no wonder that most Europeans – left and right – were pleased with the outcome on November 6th.

Am I forgetting anything?

Digital, comms, Brussels: some old posts revisited

I’ve dug up a few posts from before I even started at Fleishman-Hillard which may be interesting to anyone into digital, comms, issues and agency life in Brussels.

It’s personally been interesting to revisit stuff I’d even forgotten I’d written: plenty of naive remarks, lots of things which I’d now think were to bleedin’ obvious to even mention, lots of stuff that really hasn’t changed, and other stuff that has (e.g. I mention at one point that access to content remains search-centric but I’d now say that access to content is driven more by referrals.)

Anyway, here goes:

Shaping the debate: 1999 vs. 2009

Why the Brussels PA bubble isn’t embracing the web

Don’t listen to smug online consultants

Agencies and the commodity temptation

Reaching a legislator before and now

Being an online communications consultant in Brussels: annoying conversations

Can an eCampaign alone shift public opinion?

What to do about angry commenting trolls: ignore them

Replicating the marketing journey in issues communication

The bane of the online communications consultant

Countering fragmentation in Brussels by integrating and aggregating

The digital political party of the future

I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.

My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):

  • As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
  • Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
  • As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
  • A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.

Survey: MEPs love Facebook, like blogging less, are hugely reliant on the web for research

At FH Brussels, we’ve just published our 2nd European Parliament Digital Trends Survey, available in its full glory here, including figures for the findings cited in the title and more.

Why did we repeat the exercise and what’s the bottom line? Here’s how I summarised it in the foreword to the print version:

When we last conducted our survey on the digital habits of Members of the European Parliament in 2009, we were at a watershed moment: digital in politics seemed to have gone mainstream following the French presidential campaign in 2007 and, in particular, Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2007-08.

Brussels too was picking up on the excitement, with a variety of MEPs engaging online, looking to harness the ability to communicate with the sort of immediacy and candour previously only reserved for traditional canvassing; and increasingly using the instantaneous information available at the click of a mouse to conduct research on policy matters.

Nearly two years on we felt that it was time to reassess: the enthusiasm from across the pond has abated and the European Parliament is no longer in election frenzy; yet the value of the tools remains undiminished and citizens and businesses are increasingly connected. Have MEPs followed the trend or was 2009 a mere blip?

It turns out 2009 was anything but a blip. Our survey shows that, more than ever, MEPs are using digital channels to reach out and to inform themselves on issues of importance. In parallel, the findings also indicate that personal contact and traditional media remain essential, highlighting to anyone engaging in communications that digital is not replacing established modes of communication, but living alongside them.

I’ll be writing a few posts analysing the report in more detail over the coming weeks on Public Affairs 2.0, looking at topics like: why are MEPs blogging less, how does the EU compare to the US, what do the findings mean for the PA profession? I’ll reference here, so watch this (or that) space.

Ignore the idiots with placards

Idiots with placards are given too much visibility. Every time some contentious issue makes the headlines there’ll be 20 of them holding up home-made signs bemoaning a loss of morals, demanding that someone be banished from somewhere, or proclaiming the apocalypse. And rather than be ignored, they’ll feature prominently in reporting of whatever event they crashed, and somehow be declared the face of public opinion.

Same thing online. Anything written in a prominent blog will undoubtedly attract scores of nut-jobs declaring that the author is an evil, brainless heathen whose opinions would spell the end of humanity as we know it; and yet normal people respond to these morons and even often refer to them in follow-up content as the face of public opinion. In my line of work it equates to clients saying: they all hate us, just look at the 20 critical tweets and blog comments.

It’s too easy to make a lot of noise and somehow become the face of an issue. A plea: ignore the nut-jobs, or we end up giving them credibility and lure more nut-jobs into the public space (think the fringes of the Tea-Party in the US.) Let them have their say, but let’s please not forget most people are moderate and sensible. What’s real public opinion? A million people on the streets of London to protest against an impending war. Even better, results of surveys where a proper cross-section of people are polled.

Image source

The importance of keeping your issue off the left-right axis

One of the worst things that can happen to your issue is that it becomes politicised i.e. one political side decides to take a stand on it and the other side takes the opposite position in response.

Plenty of issues don’t actually neatly fit the right-left divide. Frankly, they’re too complex to be easily compartmentalised (I’ve had a rant about this before here) and as such political parties or groups don’t have a clear position on them. But that doesn’t matter to cheeky politicians: when they’ve decided that they can score a win with their constituents, they’ll take a stand on an issue. They may then carry the rest of their party with them and make it very hard for you as a campaigner to get your point across, no matter how solid your arguments may be, because positions have been entrenched on the left-right axis. You’ve lost control: your issue may now fall prey to the whims of political skirmishes rather than develop through a process governed by reality and logic.

So what do you do? Hope for the best (!) and monitor very carefully so you know when and how politicisation might happen before it actually does. And make sure you have a contingency plan.

Plus don’t accelerate the process yourself. If you’re a key player on your issue, don’t tick off one side or the other if you can avoid it. How? Approach your issue from both liberal (in the American sense of the word) and conservative angles; gratify the values of both your centre-right and centre-left audiences. Sounds odd, but it actually works on a wide range of issues e.g. your manufacturing process might both be great for profit margins and will employ people in a marginalised community; your new product might have been invented by an entrepreneur who benefited from a tax break and have a low carbon footprint.

And if your issue still becomes politicised? Then the contingency plan mentioned above may become easier to implement because your relatively neutral position so far may ensure more balanced treatment than you might otherwise expect.

Stupid and illogical left-right splits

Population growth and 10% economic growth in fast-developing countries will result in billions more people consuming at the rate of rich-world baby-boomers within a few decades. We’ll have to change our eating habits in the long-run, but until then, how on earth are we going to produce enough food to feed a billion middle class Indians and Chinese who have suddenly developed a taste for hamburger? Meanwhile, a complex concoction of trade regimes, population growth, urbanisation and increasing temperatures mean that food security is an ever growing threat in Africa; but in this case not because the new middle classes are demanding hamburger, but because hunger is still real (more on all of this at Citizen Renaissance here.) So what can we do about it? We can further develop smart methods of farming to increase yields perhaps. And yet if you’re a left-winger, you’ll think GMOs or other farming technologies are Satan’s spawn. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re a left-winger, you want to feed people in developing countries.

If the worst predictions come true, we’ll experience a 5-6ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, putting vast swaths of the world under water and destroying ecosystems and possibly the nature pyramid to god knows what effect. But climate-change scepticism has become a standard bearing right-wing issue: if you’re right-wing, you’ll claim it’s all a load of tosh. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re right-wing you should be just as worried as a left-winger if there’s even a slight possibility that even the most rosy scenario regarding climate change may come true.

Immigration rates in Europe aren’t really out of control as the populist press tend to claim. Three other trends are however. Declining birth rates, people reaching retirement age and Europe’s pathetic economic competitiveness. Right-wingers claim to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-wealth. And yet right-wingers tend to be, if not always hostile, at least very wary of immigration. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Who is going to buy and build things? Where is the next generation of innovators going to come from if half our population is retired?

I’m fully aware that all three issues – and many others like them – are spuriously ideological in some way i.e. a right-winger will make a political argument for why they are anti-immigrant or a climate-change sceptic; while a left-winger can just as easily frame their hostility towards GMOs in genuinely left-wing terms.

The point I’m trying to make is that most issues are far too important and complex to fit neat political demarcations. And yet politicians and the media who support them are all too ready to politicise them to score an easy win. They’re taking advantage of the age-old human instinct whereby people are comforted by thinking that everything can be defined by us or them / right or wrong; so if the opposition has taken a stand on an issue, the response is to take the opposite view, rather than debating or perhaps even – shock, horror – agreeing with it.

It’s not all bad though. At European level, the strongly consensus-based political model makes complete polarisation difficult. Meanwhile, year after year, voters throughout Europe are increasingly struggling to tell the difference between parties (which I happen to think is a good thing) while age-old political affiliations based purely on family or geography are dying out. But given that the left-right divide can still characterise epoch-defining issues like food security, immigration and climate change, we still have some way to go.

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