At a time when there’s an ever-rising death toll from the coronavirus, panic buying in grocery stores and many international markets have ground to a halt, we’re all constantly checking the news for the latest update on Covid-19. But there’s another problem which affects society.
It links together how we pass on messages about our favourite (or most detested) politician, how we transmit information about brands and celebrities, and it’s directly connected to the virus.
That’s because we’re living in a media landscape where the truth is deliberately manipulated, trust has been catastrophically devalued and organised disinformation is a growth business.
Over the last few years, those issues have been primarily discussed in the political sphere, for instance regarding dubious campaigning activity around elections. As I highlighted in my book ‘The Post-Truth Business’ this is a fundamental problem for democracy, with transparency and truth being such key foundations.
A debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos noted that due to “hacking, leaking and disputing the facts, it’s never been easier to distort the truth. Fake news and digitisation present a major threat to global democracy. Social media in particular has changed the way we consume and share news and information and accelerated the spread of inaccurate and misleading content.”
Indeed, an Economist special report on social media stated “not long ago, social media held out the promise of a more enlightened politics. Yet…far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been spreading poison”.
The implications now link directly to concerns over accessing reliable information around Covid-19 are both obvious, and deeply worrying, when the public’s need for trustworthy information about the virus is imperative.
Unfortunately, this is undermined by a lack of trust in the mainstream media, a decline in the respect given to expertise, and the ever-present reliance on word of mouth communication.
But when the spreading of ‘poisonous news’ is being turbocharged by social media, it’s important to note why the issue of speed in the transmission of news – or rather the latest apocalyptic rumour or conspiracy theory – is such a crucial factor, as it reflects how the brain processes information.
Any advertising agency will tell you that a key issue about how we use social media (in fact how we absorb any messaging) links directly to so-called System One & Two thinking.
In summary, the brain works on a dual-process model: System One is fast, driven by instinct and prior learning. Why this is important for agencies is because we don’t concentrate on the vast majority of advertising, it just takes place while we’re chatting to someone else or simultaneously looking at another screen, etc. It’s a big deal for people making TV commercials, as you might expect.
System Two however, is slow, driven by deliberation, effort and logic. So even when we believe we are making decisions based on rational considerations; our System One beliefs, biases and intuition are what drive many of our choices. It’s the “secret author of many of the judgments you make” according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.
So…System One thinking drives which ads consumers unconsciously pay attention to, as well as what brands they buy as they rush around a grocery store while dealing with constant distractions. And it has big implications for social media, politics, news about Covid-19 and thus all those creating public health messaging.
In social media terms, which commentary (heard as part of the daily background buzz which surrounds us all) that sounds vaguely agreeable to our point of view is noted while in System One ‘automatic browsing mode’ and is therefore the mode by which most of us unthinkingly pass on information.
You’ve done this and so have I, many times. And that ‘pass it on’ messaging – essentially digital word of mouth i.e. tweet to retweet – is precisely the form of communication that is most believed by others we know i.e. those we’re linked with on social media.
So, we pass on important messages without thought, they’re received by friends and acquaintances as having added credibility as they arrive from a known source i.e. us, and they’re often then retweeted without hesitation. And thus the pattern goes on and the message is spread.
Now, the implications of users utilising System One behaviour is a great thing if you’re a consumer-brand advertiser with an impactful, likeable and motivating message to communicate. But in the context of the coronavirus, this approach to social media is a terrible thing when it comes to ‘health news’ word of mouth.
The answer to this is clear – if we just thought about what we were doing – literally just actively thought about it for even a few extra seconds – our System Two ‘dual process’ would kick in & perhaps make us question what we were reading, consider the ramifications of the contents of that post, and stop our potential ‘automatic’ retweet.
This is why a quick method of verifying factual vs fake news is to simply check to see if other major news organisations are reporting on the same story – if they are then the chances are that the story stands-up to an ‘instant fake check’.
Regarding fake news, the origins go back through history, and there are clear links with the ‘Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses’ made in 1672 by Charles the 2nd ‘to restrain the speaking of false news, and licentious talking of matters of state and government’.
As were the salacious rumours spread by the political pamphleteers of the French Revolution, which was itself ‘a revolution of the media’. In strictly print-media terms, fake news can be traced back to the days of Stalin. As in the doctoring, defacing or deletion of ‘actual news imagery’ which was discovered by the journalist David King in the early 1970’s, when he was researching the Russian Revolution and communist propaganda.
Years ago, the academic Francis Fukuyama spoke of “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” being key macro issues impacting society. But the deliberate blurring effect of fake news in a post-truth world creates an ‘infosmog’ of falsehood, twisted truth, confusion and downright lies. This results in a situation where having a crystal-clear picture of ‘The Truth’ to which we can all refer becomes an ever more difficult, and sometimes impossible, goal. It gets worse. The ability to create fake news is easy and fast (unlike real journalism) as its creators can create a false story (of the outrageous click-bait or ‘intended to confuse’ type) put it online and move on to the next story at high speed. And we’ve seen actions in the coronavirus area traced back to Russian state-sponsored disinformation.
To be clear about just how vitally important this all is, in her excellent book Who Can You Trust? author Rachel Botsman states that “without trust, and without an understanding of how it is built, managed, lost and repaired, a society cannot thrive. Trust is fundamental to almost every action, relationship and transaction”.
The media is at the forefront of the War on Truth, but a large percentage of it must urgently rebuild levels of public trust. It’s now, as they say, ‘mission critical’.
Because when it comes to the truth vs fake news at a time when we’re enduring a global pandemic, and all of us are concerned about the wellbeing of our families and communities, then this issue is quite literally, a matter of life or death.