The impact of the post-truth era on digital marketing

Can you sort the real news from the fake? Neither can hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s causing big issues for digital marketers.

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Fake news is not a new issue, but it has certainly become more prolific in the advent of social media’s alleged influence on the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election. As social media users falsely legitimise a source by liking and sharing a piece of content, algorithms can struggle to determine what is real news, and what is fake. This resulted in the term “post-truth” being coined – a world where an opinion is more important than the truth.

There are many issues that arise for digital marketers off the back of this, including managing brand reputation, ad placement, and content marketing.

Reputation management meltdowns

A huge number of people rely on Facebook for their news. If a brand you represent has a fake news story published that is then shared all over the platform, there is a good chance that this will be picked up and shared on other sites, increasing its reach and making the story appear to be true, even if there are no facts to back it up. In addition, it can be difficult to track down the original source of the fake news to ensure it is removed or corrected.

Even if a brand is not directly affected by fake news, a brand that is associated with such a source (or in this case, one that wants to distance itself from a particular source) can still find themselves subject to serious brand damage.

After Kellogg’s made the decision to pull advertising from alt-right publisher Breitbart, who are vocal supporters of Donald Trump, a campaign was started to boycott Kellogg’s, with the hashtag #DumpKelloggs being shared widely, along with a petition to ‘ban bigotry from the breakfast table’.

Now I’m not saying that Kellogg’s is squeaky clean by any means, but much of the news distributed by Breitbart is rumoured to be overblown and poorly researched, adding to the fake news problem (though in their eyes, lefty, mainstream media is the source of fake news, making it all the more confusing). Either way, it worked. Kellogg’s stock dropped, showing the power of social media.

Which leads us on to the next issue…

Ad placement pitfalls

As the Kellogg’s example demonstrates, brands are, to an extent, at the mercy of publishers when it comes to where its ads should appear. In the Kellogg’s case, they pulled ads from media partners that did not align with its company values, and in turn offended a large proportion of its customer base.

It may, therefore, be wise to be as neutral as possible when selecting ad placements, as well as reviewing all placements to ensure that ad spend is not being frittered away on media partners that have a reputation for unreliable reporting. As with point one, aligning a brand with such a publication can be damaging.

Kim Davis from sums it up perfectly:

“Marketers and advertisers don’t want to waste dollars on campaigns that are invisible, or impressions that are fraudulent. And beyond that, they don’t want to spend money pushing messages into environments their customers will find inappropriate, offensive, hostile, or risky.”

That being said, it can be difficult for adtech companies to determine what sites are appropriate for a brand’s ads to appear on – and some are willing to blacklist publications based on their editorial policies or political slant – some are not. The comments on this AdWeek article sums up what Joe Public determines to be ‘fake news’ publications, mostly based on their contrasting political views and not much else.

Content marketing minefields

Any written content should be fact checked for integrity before it is published. If it’s an opinion piece, you may get away with being less rigid, but whether it is a thought leadership piece or a news piece, linking to unreliable sources is a big no-no.

Just using one source to verify a fact is not a great idea. If an article you are thinking of citing contains information that you are unsure about, check multiple sources, and the credibility of those sources before using them. Having to make a correction later along the line erodes trust in a brand, and is seen as a sign of poor journalism/copywriting.

On the flip side, if fake news on a particular topic is being widely circulated, it becomes more difficult to pick out a legitimate, well-researched piece that you may have spent hours crafting.

The problems extend into content not written or published by a brand in the form of ‘harmless’ social media posts too. Not fact-checking a piece of content before sharing can make a brand look pretty silly – even if it’s just an image. An example of this happened recently when a ‘photo’ of a shark leaping out of the ocean was shared all over social media, stating that it had won the National Geographic photo of the year. Turns out, it wasn’t associated with Nat Geo, and it wasn’t even a real photo of a shark. Use reverse image search to track down the source of the image and its pretty easy to determine whether it is real or fake.

Not a real shark. Source: Shutterstock

The bottom line is to be careful when assessing the accuracy of your news sources in the era of post-truth. Just because people are jumping on the bandwagon to back up a questionable story doesn’t make it true – only cold, hard facts, from reliable sources will back it up.

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