Fake News, Word of Mouth and Social Media

In preparation for the workshop I'm presenting at CPRS 2017 alongside Terry Flynn and Heather Pullen, I've been doing a fair bit of reading lately about the "fake news" phenomenon (which is a new, Trump-issued name for a very old tradition of dis/misinformation). 

I think, though, there is probably one central reason why the dissemination of "fake news" in our current media environment is so pernicious and difficult to counter. It's a similar reason to why influencer marketing is so successful ROI-wise.

It's because information shared by social media "friends" functions primarily as word-of-mouth, and readers therefore trust it more than they would information that comes directly from a more 'official', authoritative source.

Word-of-mouth marketing has the highest "trust" factor. Let's think about the paid-earned-shared-owned (PESO) model developed by Gini Dietrich:

Image credit: Cision.

Image credit: Cision.

Paid influencer content is in the "paid/shared" buckets, but reads as if it's in the "earned" bucket, and most influencers are influencers because of their success getting their own earned content seen. That's why influencers are often so hesitant to use the #ad or #paid hashtags to indicate where their content is an advertisement. But even when they do, most influencers are careful always to indicate that they only work with brands they personally like and trust; they're just lucky enough to be paid to represent them. (This is generally truthful, if only to keep things on-brand.)

The strength of influencer marketing is that it exists in the liminal space between paid and earned media: it uses the high trust factor of word-of-mouth recommendation to advertise products.

And the strength of fake news is that it exists in a similar liminal space between earned and shared media. 

There is a distinction between media producers who publish fake news in order to achieve a strategic objective, whether that be political, social, economic or otherwise, and social media users who share that fake news because they believe it is true. And there are many reasons for publishing fake news. A group of young Macedonians apparently published reams of it in order to make money from "outrage clicks"; any political objective was secondary to the economic impetus. (This is one of the things, by the way, that distinguishes modern "fake news" from many historical propaganda efforts.)

Fringe political groups with specific political agendas, on the other hand, publish the most outrageous stories they can find - or spin - and seed this content in highly partisan social media groups, which themselves become the vector for information dissemination rather than the publisher itself. Counterculture groups, whatever their position, are particularly susceptible to this dynamic, because they are configured in opposition to mainstream sources; they are more likely to trust less mainstream news sources, as they see mainstream news outlets as "fake". Word-of-mouth, therefore, becomes the only trusted source of information - whether or not that information is itself deliberate disinformation, which is often is. 

This isn't just a fringe-group phenonemon, though. As our filter bubbles shrink, we tend to see only information from sources with which we already agree. This creates a feedback loop in social media: our perceptions of the world are continually confirmed wherever we go, and over time, we become more and more inured to ideas outside of our bubble. And within this bubble, we therefore become more susceptible specifically to fake news that confirms what we already believe, no matter how unbelievable it might otherwise seem. (I would argue that this is even more important now, considering how unprecedented much of our political landscape is.)

Yet another argument, I think, for continuing to seek out information and ideas that are anathema to us - not to change our own minds, but to keep our fake-news-detectors working.