In the wake of the news that fake news might have played a role in swinging the presidential election, an interesting study about media literacy emerged in Silicon Valley. Surveying close to 8,000 students--from middle school age through college--a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded that most young people (82% of the sample) can't tell the difference between real news and fake.
The story was striking in several ways. First, it was interesting that it came out of Stanford, the intellectual hothouse for the Valley, which is home to Google, Facebook, and other tech companies which ultimately accepted responsibility for the distribution of fake news. Second, we shouldn't be surprised if we soon see a study on media literacy among older adults with similarly alarming results. After all, fake news sites collectively outperformed 19 mainstream news sites--including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, yes, this publication,The Huffington Post--in the final weeks of the election cycle. Not all readers of fake news are kids.
All this is interesting. But, for me--a marketer who has been watching and participating in the digital transformation of media for close to two decades--the most interesting thing about the Stanford study is the message it sends to the marketing industry. In the age of big content, where ordinary citizens have more power than ever to create their own media, ordinary citizens have more responsibility to tell the difference between fake and real, and between right and wrong. Media literacy is everyone's responsibility. It's the price we pay to live in the new digital economy, where every company--and every citizen--can act like a media company.
A teachable moment
Marketing professionals, of course, are among those citizens. But, as the biggest creators of content today, we have an even greater responsibility. I suspect that many of us have understood this for a very long time. But sometimes it takes a crisis to get people to change. From where I sit, the fake news crisis is an opportunity: a teachable moment for all marketers who might have lost their way.
What can we learn? First, we can learn to be more responsible to our clients. On a tactical level, we can help them understand the tech tools that are emerging to prevent brands from trafficking on fake news sites. While these sites might be able to generate many page views and clicks--metrics that, by the way, tell you little about whether there is true engagement--they will almost certainly harm brands by mere association. At my own company--a video advertising platform--we help to ensure that campaigns are optimized for premium media placements. On a strategic level, we're educating agencies on how to prepare and respond to the damage that can be done by fake news that targets a brand. As Richard Edelman observed in a recent blog post, brands like Pepsi have been among the many entities harmed by fake newsmakers.
Second, we can be more responsible to readers, who are among the greatest victims of the false stories, rumors, and smears that are perpetrated. It robs them of their power as citizens, and as consumers. As I noted at the top of this post, media literacy will be required to combat fake news because the reality today is that the individual will need to be smarter than ever. Marketers might help here by starting or supporting media literacy projects (which are already beginning to proliferate). But the responsibility does not stop there. Marketers in digital should explore and embrace the technologies that not only protect their customers but their customers' customers as well.
Marketers behaving badly
Which brings me to my third point: how we, as marketers, can also be more responsible to ourselves. By that I mean the rules that both enliven us as professionals, and protect our reputations.
There was a time, not long ago, that many marketers could feel proud by aligning along the right side of history. The social media movement--foreshadowed in the late 1990s by the Cluetrain Manifesto--was a call to arms to marketers in the emerging digital world to begin treating customers with respect. Number one rule from the Cluetrain: "markets are conversations." The idea was that digital--because it was designed to be interactive--could liberate marketers from the one-sided conversations they were having with their customers before the Web was born.
This was a common view in 2006, when social media marketers first began to seriously assert themselves. But fast forward one short decade: what we are seeing today is not only a violation of the new digital rules, but the wanton use of one the more morally neutral properties of digital: virality, which cares less about conversation and more about sensation. It's not like the ethos of social media disappeared. It's more like it's been sidelined in a game with different rules.
Of course, not all this bad behavior falls under the banner of fake news. To be sure, there's a qualitative difference between fakesters and hucksters, spammers, and marketers who are otherwise behaving badly. But you can also see the behavior on a continuum that was caused in part by the emergence of big content which are forcing us once again to examine the rules and tools of engagement. It may be time for a second call to arms--a second Manifesto--to get us all back on the right side of the history, and enjoy what we do more as a consequence. As Winston Churchill said, we should "never let a good crisis go to waste." And this crisis, my friends, is a great one. It should be enough to inspire the next generation of people in our profession.