Real news: guilt by association
One year on from Trump’s victory in the American polls, and as fake news is deemed ‘word of the year’ by Collins dictionary, 44’s Alan Coates explores the US President’s most immediate legacy: and how our audiences are changing as a result.
United States Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once said that ‘honesty is the best policy’. In contrast, Trump said in an interview with CNN recently that “… one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake’.” The word fake has now been added to a list of five things that Trump claims to have invented, but hasn’t, including an 84-year-old economic theory and the Mexican border.
In the aftermath of the US Presidential election, and indeed in the Brexit referendum in the UK, Facebook and Twitter have been criticised for promoting so-called fake news. The rationale for this comes from the fact that Facebook and Twitter want as much engagement as possible. The more comments, likes, shares a post gets, the more revenue that post generates through advertising and advocacy. There is no value attributed to the quality or accuracy of the story, only the scale of the reaction to it. This skewed approach to content publishing hasn’t gone unnoticed. Just this month, US Senators grilled representatives from the social media giants over alleged Russian influence in the US presidential election. There are also talks about formalising the social and legal responsibilities of Facebook and Twitter as editors. The argument that ‘it’s our platform, but not our content’ is not impressing those that the content affects. But is this a new problem?
Before the days of instant social media and 24-hour rolling news channels, we were quite happy to catch-up with the latest daily news in the tabloids and broadsheets. Trusty papers such as The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian were full of ‘proper’ journalism, edited, fact-checked and set in type. But can we really believe everything that we read? A recent survey states that the ‘UK written press is the least trusted in Europe’, and it’s not even close. Newspapers have historically suffered (and benefitted) from political bias. In the 2017 UK General Election The Daily Telegraph and The Times were centre-right leaning. The Guardian was left-leaning and supported Labour. Famously in the 1992 UK General Election, The Sun printed a headline that ran “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. The Sun was (and still is) owned by Rupert Murdoch, and it was in part his relentless drive to turn voters against the labour candidate that helped to swing a 21-seat majority for the Conservative party that year.
You’d be surprised how small the number is. In 1983, 90 per cent of American media was owned by 50 different companies, each with their own ideas, agendas and identities. By the end of 2006, there are were only eight giant media companies dominating the US media, from which most people get their news and information. In North Korea, things are even stranger. In a listicle by shortlist.com, they state that that North Korea’s propaganda machine is working overtime, proudly boasting how Kim Jong-un ‘climbed an active volcano’, state scientists had ‘discovered a unicorn lair’ and that Kim Jong-il had played a ‘world record golf round’. Trump that, Mr President.
If we keep in mind fake news, political bias and unicorn sightings, it’s understandable that audiences are becoming mistrustful. In a recent study by Reuters, ‘People see the difference between fake news and news as one of degree rather than clear distinction’. In other words, all news is seen as untrustworthy, it’s just a matter of by how much. As communicators, we need to bear this in mind. Our intranets, newspapers, magazines, and internal social feeds require our audiences to be participants in the story. Their thoughts, feelings and actions are why we do what we do – and so we need to make sure we pre-empt any mistrust in the messages we send out. We do this by being transparent, clear and – above all – honest. Because unless you are the most powerful political leader in the world, honesty is still the best policy. Disclaimer: 44 Communications is not responsible for the clarity, creativity or accuracy of any of the sources cited in this article.