Words Matter. Definitions Matter More... Or The Problem With Fake News

By Mitch Joel of CMA's Digital Marketing Council

Everything is not fake news.

Before we get started, let's all agree that this is not a political post. This is a post about branding, definitions, public perception and the power of the words that we - as businesses - use in marketing.

Here's something to think about: CNN is not fake news. Fox News is not fake news. What is fake news? Fake news is someone (or a bot) that builds a website or social media page that either looks like a legitimate news source or spoofs a legitimate news website by stealing its branding. Fake news is also the creation of completely fabricated information that is then published on this fake news website/social media page with the sole intent of making it seem legitimate. Fake news is also the purchasing of advertising that is directly targeted at the audience that is more than likely (based on data) to push this fake content to be shared, published and exchanged in real pages (this way, the fake news becomes legitimate content on real pages). Fake news is also everything above, but done using dark posts, so that the content is only seen by those who it is targeting. Then those consumers will share and re-publish this content, to make it appear more legitimate.

That is (in a very simplistic way) what fake news is.

Partisan news outlets are not fake news. They are, simply, slanted to cover a particular side in a particular way. When news outlets get the news wrong or promote salacious content, they are not "fake news." They are being partisan, they are being salacious and they are making mistakes. When news outlets post op-ed or editorial pieces, they are not fake news... they are publishing the opinion of an individual (whether we like them or not). 

Think about it this way...

If you don't agree with this thinking, you can easily point to this article and call it "fake news." It is not fake news. It is content that you don't agree with... or it is content that I may have gotten wrong... or it's my own opinion about a topic and you, simply, do not agree with it. That doesn't meet the definition of fake news... not by a long shot. Still, if someone has a voice, audience and media attention, and trains everybody to believe that fake news is everything stated above - all of it - it can take hold.

And, it has. And, that's very scary.

People (not just those in power) have become habituated to think that news that is slanted with opinion or that has a mistake in it is the same as fake news, as defined above. You don't have to like the state of the news media business, but we can't just paint a brush and say, "that's fake news!" It's not only unfair, but it's untrue. It also has substantive problems moving forward for all of us, as a society. You can distrust the media. You can be skeptical of the media. You can fall anywhere on the spectrum of media literacy, from believing everything blindly (on one side) to being a total conspiracy theorist (on the other side). This doesn't make the news fake. It makes your level of belief and/or disbelief sway. Labeling major news media outlets as "fake" and allowing this to trickle down and permeate society puts everyone in a very precarious situation. The news was a place that allowed information to flow. It wasn't always perfect. It wasn't always mistake free. It was (and still is) the institution between the power brokers and the general public (who are always the most affected by this power).  

Don't mistake facts for opinions.

With that, it's fine to question the facts or layer onto the facts an opinion, political stance, religious perspective, etc... but if we fall into the trap of believing that there are no more facts, we are doomed. If we believe that everything we're exposed to in the news is an opinion (and can be called "fake news"), there is a root problem here. Facts that add colour do give us a perspective. Fabricated stories that read like news or appear to be facts are not a perspective. There is an important distinction here. Most of what is being called "fake news" is not. If we allow it to be labelled as such, the implications are terrifying.

Think about your brand.

Think about your consumer. Think about how you sell to them. Think about your content. Think about your branding. Think about your products and services. If we are in a world where anyone (senior leaders included) can say things like, "the news is fake," how will this trickle down to brands? How does this affect positioning, our ability to communicate and connect and, ultimately, customer service? For me, I believe that the news media is not perfect, but being labelled and accepted in the same vein as "fake news" is shameful. It is with ease that this notion has taken hold. I worry for the future of brands and their ability to be more transparent and open, when our society has become so accepting of this type of labelling.

Words matter. Definitions matter more.

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Previously published on Six Pixels of Separation

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Tags: fake news, mitch joel, media, facts, cnn, fox news, branding