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?  

Advertisements

Beyond influencer engagement in Brussels

I drafted a post last year on online influencer marketing/engagement, which I’ll build on here. The premise remains that influencer engagement to support public affairs activity in Brussels can be a fairly futile exercise.

Why? Organisations conduct online influencer engagement in order to gain greater visibility and credibility by being ‘endorsed’ by someone influential. But the Brussels bubble is tiny. By extension, the degree of separation between a target and oneself is also tiny. So it’s quite easy to reach a policy-maker. Anyone who has worked in politics nationally always stresses how much easier it is to get a meeting with policy-makers in Brussels than any national capital. The same is true online: visibility is not overly hard. What’s harder is gaining trust and support, so I’d argue that it makes more sense for an organisation to itself be influential by being relevant, useful and interesting online, rather than hoping to amplify its message through others.

Moreover, people who have a substantial following online in Brussels tend to be generalists, while influence on most issues can only be gained by someone with at least a modicum of technical expertise.

I am not dismissing the practice of influencer engagement. While puerile Instagrammers are making influencers less appetising in consumer marketing, it is gaining ground in the more cerebral communications disciplines like public affairs, corporate communications and B2B. Indeed, it is often the most impactful tactic for building online reach and credibility in these disciplines.

But as mentioned, in Brussels, credibility, gaining trust, and standing out from the crowd tend to be the real challenges, not visibility. Therefore, looking to create better content should probably be the focal point online, not seeking the endorsement of influencers.

Having said all that, there is an influencer angle in generating better content: involving experts in content creation. Think pharma companies teaming up with patient groups to co-create content, for instance. I’d argue this is the more impactful approach to ‘influencers’ in a market like Brussels: not treating influencer engagement as an extension of media relations – as a means to get a 3rd party with a big audience to endorse you – but rather, collaborating with people who are influential in a niche in order to enrich your communications output.

3 scenarios for digital public affairs

How can digital means of communications most effectively be used to support a public affairs programme? As with much else, it depends.

A handy starting point is the type of public affairs activity once is conducting: is it technical work on the nitty-gritty of specific legislation; is it building political capital through positioning and relationship-building; or is it public opinion shaping and mobilisation (what our American friends would call grassroots)?

The diagram below (which is a re-design of a previous model) aligns activity with need and key tactics. As ever, comments are very welcome, as I’m not sure I’ve got the model right yet (some people have questioned leaving out social media from the third category, for instance).

Digital public affairs

Digital public affairs: a love-hate relationship

I fell into digital public affairs entirely by accident around a decade ago (I’m by no means an early adopter of technologies). But I stuck with it and remain excited by its impact and potential.

Why I love it

While we often obsess over how digital can deliver information, its effects on the environment in which public affairs operates is the better starting point.

Anyone can communicate to whoever, whenever, making ‘access’ less important, and granting a louder voice to activists. This in turn drives greater scrutiny and increased risk (at great speed, and from farther afield). As citizens, this should delight us. As people in business, it is obviously cause for concern.

Navigating all of this with success requires change within organisations: collaboration between business functions; broader and more aligned risk management; new skills; and often more transparent or just plain better behaviour. Which invariably calls for structural, operational, and cultural change.

An increasing number of public affairs practitioners appreciate that ‘doing digital’ properly involves all of the above, and not just setting up a couple of social feeds. I have helped some of them evaluate the risks and opportunities that digital brings to their organisations from a public affairs perspective, and have subsequently worked with them on appropriate strategies and operational plans. This sort of work is the most stimulating I’ve done over the last couple of years, and helps explain why digital public affairs and I remain an item.

From the perspective of communications execution, digital is of course also really exciting. Given reduced trust and greater scrutiny of business, message and reputation increasingly dictate policy outcomes. The scope for reputation building and environment-shaping on digital are endless, from creative and storytelling techniques, through to social interaction with friends (and foes), and using online tools to manage complex programmes, all underpinned by sophisticated uses of data. As with the digital transformation stuff I outline above, working with clients who make the most of these tools and methods is really motivating.

Why I hate it

‘Hate’ might be overplaying it. But I am disappointed by how low digital maturity levels remain in most public affairs functions. Its impact and scope are appreciated narrowly, as it is seen merely as an ‘awareness’ channel for ‘getting a message out’. More sophisticated uses of digital – the fun stuff I describe above – are usually not considered, which can be rather dispiriting.

Why not? Brussels remains a policy town, where technical knowledge trumps the science of influence and reputation-building, whether on or offline. Few public affairs professionals appreciate the principles of campaigning and marketing that would make them effective beyond the technical components of their work.

And in all honesty, I understand why. The staples of government relations – technical information provision and navigating the policy process – remain the key determinants of success in Brussels. And personal access remains quite easy, so why bother reaching policy-makers online? Moreover, a lot of the exciting components of digital relate to what Americans call grassroots: mobilising supporters to drive bottom-up influence. But European publics are based in member-states, while most PA practitioners have Brussels-only remits (and budgets).

Having said that, there is still plenty of scope for digital even on the most technical and Brussels-only dossier. At its basest, it can be used to analyse competition, monitor, and provide basic information via content and search.

But more importantly, due to digital (and other forces), public affairs is increasingly moving beyond the prism of the technical and Brussels-only. Reputation-building and opinion-shaping activities are prerequisites for success, and a modicum of digital aptitude is required to do either well.

 

Communications for public affairs: fewer messages and delivery gimmicks, more strategy please

What should you do when developing a communications strategy in support of a public affairs programme in Brussels?

In short:

  1. List what you are seeking to achieve through communications (usually one of three things: support an immediate regulatory priority; build positive reputation amongst key decision-makers; shape public perception around your organisation or industry).
  2. List who specifically you are seeking to influence (keep it as short as possible).
  3. Determine what is most likely to influence them: technical vs. non-technical arguments; reaching them directly or through intermediaries; channel preference; most relevant data points; most viable examples; helping address political needs/challenges.
  4. Develop a strategy likely to deliver on the above. Perhaps a differentiation strategy, building communities of support, leveraging influential individuals. Or whatever.

What NOT to do when developing a communications strategy in support of a public affairs programme?

Write a few vapid messages, have a whacky brainstorm with post-its to devise gimmicks that can help deliver said message as many times as possible, execute the gimmicks, and hope that through a vicious battle of attrition, some will stick.

If you actually speak to the intended recipients of communications material by corporate public affairs folk in Brussels, and ask them what they crave, it’s usually a mix of the following:

  • Useful technical information (especially data)
  • Useful case-studies/examples that align with their world-view and needs
  • Proof of market power
  • Proof of popular support
  • Differentiation i.e. how are you truly ‘better’ than the competition
  • Current impact AND long-term vision
  • Often, proof of commitment to Europe
  • No whinging
  • No bland nonsense about innovation or sustainability (unless you are truly innovative or sustainable)

And it all needs to be tailored, pitched at the right level, easy to grasp, and delivered at the right time.

Yet we too often develop messages and obsess about distributing them without thinking much about our audiences or tailoring delivery to them. Our assumption remains that repeated reach will win the day. “They just haven’t heard our message enough times!” is a common refrain in Brussels.

News alert: message delivery without audience analysis and an appropriate strategy is most likely a complete waste of time.

The myth of influencer marketing in Brussels

The notion of ‘influencers’ has been all the rage in Brussels recently. Understandably. In the real world, influencer marketing – the practice of teaming up with influential people to help promote an organisation or product – can be highly effective.

The principle of influencer marketing is not new. We’ve all sniggered at grainy ads from the 50s featuring doctors flogging cigarettes that do wonders for a niggly sore throat. And in public affairs, we’ve also been at it for years – think pharma and patient groups, or agrochemicals companies and farmers – but calling it stuff like key opinion leader mobilisation (or whatever).

But in the social media age, the concept of influencer marketing has moved on a notch:

  • It is far easier to build a public platform, so there are simply more people who are influential (as well as plenty more who think they may be, but patently are not)
  • Similarly, it is easier to get an influencer in front of those one is seeking to influence online than it is offline
  • Higher levels of mistrust in entities like industry and media makes credibility harder to attain, and influencers can help

Cue: lots of people, including public affairs practitioners, with high hopes for online influencer marketing.

While not doubting the effectiveness of online influencer marketing when done well, I would urge caution to anyone expecting it to make a massive dent in Brussels. In the marketing world, influence comes from being able to help sell a product. In Brussels, the product for sale is policy impact, usually driven by: the provision of high quality technical information; proof of market power (i.e. the ability to generate jobs and growth); or proof of public support (at least amongst key constituencies). If online influencers can help deliver technical or market power information that supports one’s case but might otherwise not cut through the clutter, or whose reach can be taken as a sign of popular support – then great, they will likely deliver policy influence. But I doubt there are more than a handful of Brussels-based individuals who fit this bill. There may be plenty of people who are followed by the entire bubble and whose stuff gets shared because it is amusing, topical or controversial – but this does not equate to influence.

So should we discard influencer marketing entirely in Brussels? Not quite, but we may wish to alter the paradigm by which we approach it:

  • Online influencers that can influence policy (experts, high-profile green bloggers etc.) do exist, but usually at member state level. So if a key target stems from a country in which an all-powerful online influencer may realistically support your cause, by all means, explore the option.
  • Given how small the Brussels bubble is, the key triumvirate – entity seeking to influence / influential people / target audiences – have fewer degrees of separation between them than in the real world. And sometimes they are the same person. Spokespeople are sometimes cited as influencers, for instance. But are they not also targets? You might be seeking to influence, but are you not just one useful piece of online content away from actually being the influencer yourself?

In summary, for anyone seeking to use the online sphere as a means to influence in Brussels, I’d advise two things:

  1. Do not develop an ‘influencer’ list for Brussels, as there are not enough influencers, and there will be too much overlap between it and your target list. Simply create a target list that doubles up as an influencer list. It should include details on each individual’s online presence, especially a recommendation on how best to reach and leverage each e.g. target directly, target indirectly through paid, engage openly – or indeed, seek to leverage as an influencer.
  2. Try to become influential online yourself rather than seeking intermediaries to carry your message, through a really relevant and high-quality content strategy. Given the dearth of brilliant online content in Brussels – and the reluctance of many otherwise excellent public affairs practitioners to build their ‘personal brand’ online – there are rich pickings to be had.

Digital across three types of public affairs activity

Below is a slide I developed for a recent presentation to a lovely collection of my countrymen.

It summaries viable digital tactics across three ‘types’ of public affairs activity:

  1. Technical i.e. classic government relations on a legislative dossier on which experts on every side are wrangling over the details of key texts
  2. Reputation building amongst policy-makers i.e. when an interest group is seeking to build a relationship with policy-makers beyond the technical wrangling through positioning/differentiation
  3. External environment shaping i.e. what Americans often call grassroots – the attempt to influence publics in order to indirectly influence policy

As ever, kind thoughts or even brutal take-downs would be appreciated.

Digital Public Affairs