Map #27: Fixing Fake News

I wonder, do you ever share my feeling that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’—these phrases that get thrown about every day by the commentariat—cloud our understanding rather than clarify it? To me, such phrases—frequently used, fuzzily defined—are like unprocessed items in the inbox of my brain. I pick them up. I put them down. I move them from one side of my desk to the other, without ever really opening them up to make sense of what they are and what to do with them.

One of my friends, Dr Harun Yilmaz, finally got tired of my conceptual fuzziness, and he and a colleague wrote a brief book to tell me what fake news is, how the post-truth era has come about, and how to win public trust nowadays—for power or profit—now that the old trust engines are broken. It’s now become my little bible on the subject. (And although I’d rather keep the insights all to myself, he’s just published it as an affordable e-book called Marketing In The Post-Truth Era.)

(I’ve never met Harun’s co-author, Nilufar Sharipova, but Harun and I go back many years. We did our PhDs side-by-side at Oxford. While I studied China, he studied the Soviet Union—specifically, how Soviet politicians and historians constructed national stories to give millions of people an imaginary, shared past that helped explain why the USSR belonged together. (I’m sure his thesis was very interesting, but I mostly remember how Harun bribed his way past local Kazakh officials with bottles of vodka to peek into their dusty Soviet archives.)

Harun’s been studying ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ since it was still good ol’ ‘propaganda’—and that, from the very best in the business.

The Rise Of Fake News, In Three Key Concepts

1. The Truth Machine

To understand the post-truth era, Harun would say, we first need to understand the prior, truth era. Even back in the truth era, pure truth or real news never existed. Whether we judged a message to be true depended on (a) how the editor of the message presented it and (b) how we the viewer perceived it.

Here’s a visual example of (a) from the Iraq War. With the same picture (middle frame), I can present two completely different messages, depending on how I crop it.

Everything you read in a newspaper or hear on a radio, every question asked and answered, is the outcome of a human decision to accord it priority over another item. (Simon Jenkins, Columnist, The Guardian)

What about (b)? How did we perceive ‘the news’ in the era before some people started calling it ‘fake’? The honest answer—for me, at least—was that I mostly took the news to be something ‘real’.

In the post-truth era, when ‘fake news’ has now become a frequent problem, ‘critical thinking’ has become a frequent antidote. Given social media, which allows anyone to say anything to everyone, we need to educate ourselves and our children to think critically about everything we see, read and hear.

Harun would say, we needed—and lacked—this skill back in the age of mass media, too. Yes, the power to speak to large audiences was more concentrated. (You needed a broadcasting license, a TV station, a radio station, a newspaper or a publishing house—and not everyone had those.) But that concentration of power didn’t necessarily make the messages these media machines churned out more trustworthy. That was our perception—and, arguably, our naïvete.

(Here’s a personal anecdote to think about. Back in the mass media age, when I lived in China, a highly educated Chinese friend of mine argued that Chinese audiences were far more media-savvy than Western audiences. They at least knew that everything they saw, read or heard from mass media had a specific editorial bias. In China, you didn’t pick up the daily paper to read ‘the news’; you picked it up to infer the Communist Party’s agenda and priorities.

Now, to be fair to the ‘Westerners’ among us, we were never completely naïve consumers of mass media. I knew that the New York Times had its bias, which was different from the Wall Street Journal. But it’s also true that I never saw, nor enquired into, the editorial process of either. Who decided which stories were newsworthy and which weren’t? Exactly what agendas, and whose agendas, were being served by the overall narrative?)

The point is, even in the truth era, truth was something manufactured. And ‘The Truth Machine’, as Harun and his colleague call it, had three parts: experts, numbers and mass media. When orchestrated together—the experts say, the numbers show, the news reports—these three sources of legitimacy could turn almost any message into ‘truth’.

Throughout the 20th century, governments all over the world used The Truth Machine to dramatic effect: policy priorities were fed in one end, and popular support came out the other. (For CIA history buffs, Harun gives a great example from the 1950s. In 1950, Guatemala overwhelmingly elected a new president who promised to wrest control of the country’s banana-based economy back from the United Fruit Company (an American corporation that owned all the ports and most of the land) and return control to the people. United Fruit and the U.S. government deployed experts, swayed journalists, staged events and made up facts to help the American public reframe the situation in Guatemala as a communist threat to American values and democracy. The new Guatemalan president had no links to the Soviet Union, yet when the CIA helped to remove him via military coup in 1954, public opinion in the U.S. held it up as another victory in the Cold War.)

Businesses, too, have been using The Truth Machine for decades to wrap commercial messages in the legitimacy of ‘truth’. A serious-looking dentist in a white uniform (expert) advises us to use Colgate toothpaste. Mr Clean bathroom cleaner kills 99.9% of bacteria (numbers). And we’re shown these advertisements over and over again (mass media).

2. The Funhouse

The more accurate way to think about our ‘post-truth’ problem today, Harun argues, is not that ‘real news’ has suddenly become drowned out by ‘fake news’. Rather: whereas once there was only one, or very few, Truth Machines operating in society, now there are many. And they’re working against each other, spewing out contradictory truths. The Truth Machines themselves have become a contradiction, since the more competing truths they manufacture, the more they undermine public trust in the authority of numbers, experts and mass media.

We cannot simply trust convincing-looking numbers anymore, because we are now bombarded with numbers that look convincing. We cannot simply trust experts anymore, because we are now bombarded by experts telling us contradictory things. We cannot trust mass media anymore, because mass media is just full of experts and numbers—which we know we can’t simply trust anymore.

The Truth Machine is broken, and so it’s like we’ve gone to the amusement park and stepped inside ‘The Funhouse’—another great metaphor, courtesy of Harun and Nilufar. In the truth era, we assumed that individuals would read and listen to different messages and make a rational choice between them. Now, multiple, contradictory truths create so much confusion that individuals start to doubt everything, like in a hall of mirrors. People think, ‘There is no way for me to know what is objectively true anymore.’

3. The Group

What we all need is a new source of sincerity. And we’re finding it: within our social reference group. It’s our first and last refuge of belief and principle about what is true and what is untrue. Rational analysis has become unreliable, so we are reverting to our oldest strategy for making sense of our world.

Groups as trust machines

The simple fact is that we are social animals. And so ‘groups’ are a real, natural, organic part of our lives. Social science is full of simple experiments, going back to its beginnings, that demonstrate how our group influences how we as individuals think and behave.

(One of the oldest and simplest experiments was conducted in the 1930s by one of the founding fathers of social psychology, Muzafer Sherif. He put participants alone in a completely dark room, except for a single penlight at the other end. He asked each person to estimate how much the point of light moved. (In fact, the light didn’t move at all, our eye muscles fatigue and twitch whenever we stare at something long enough, and those twitches cause us to see movement where there isn’t any.) Individual guesses varied widely, but once the participants got together, those whose guesses were at the high end of the range reduced theirs, and those whose guesses were at the low end raised theirs. Take-away: The group norm becomes the frame of reference for our individual perceptions—especially in ambiguous situations.)

The same technological forces behind the breakdown of The Truth Machine are also behind the rising power of groups. Organic social groups can form more easily now—around shared passions and experiences—than was previously possible. Small, scattered communities of interest have become global networks of like-mindedness. Coordinating messages and meetups, once expensive and difficult, is now free and frictionless. And social groups can filter more easily now, too, creating echo chambers that reinforce opinions within the group and delete dissonant voices.

Making Group Truths

While some of us bemoan the ‘polarization’ or ‘Balkanization’ of public opinion, some influencers—politicians, advertisers—are simply shifting strategies to better leverage this re-emerging power of group trust. More and more influencers are figuring out that, although the old Truth Machine is broken, a new ‘Truth Machine 2.0’ is born. In this post-truth era, a manufactured message can still become trustworthy—if it reaches an individual via a group.

In fact, this new Truth Machine generates more powerful truths than the old Truth Machine ever could. There was always something artificial about the truths that the old machine manufactured; they came at us via those doctors in lab coats and news anchors sitting behind their news desks and pretending to scribble notes behind their news desks. But these new truths come at us organically—with fewer traces of the industrial process that spawned them.

Harun points to the ‘Pizzagate’ episode during the 2016 presidential election—maybe the wildest example of the power of this new-and-improved truth machine. Stories had circulated on social media that Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats were running a child trafficking ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, DC. In December 2016, one proactive citizen, a 28-year-old father of two, burst into the pizzeria with his AR-15 assault rifle to free the children. He fired shots at the fleeing employees, then searched for the children. He became confused (and surrendered to DC police) when he didn’t find any.

The mainstream media debunked the child-trafficking story—which, for some, only confirmed its truth. According to public opinion polls at the time, 9% of Americans accepted the story as reliable, trustworthy and accurate. Another 19% found it ‘somewhat plausible’.

Is that a lot? I think it is: with almost no budget, no experts, no analysis, no media agency, an absurd fiction became a dangerous truth for millions of people.

Marketing Group Truths

Harun’s book with Nilufar is aimed at businesses—to help marketers rethink marketing in an age when the public has lost trust in conventional messengers. And this age does demand a fundamental rethink of the marketing function. In the industrial era, business broke consumer society into segments. We were ‘soccer moms’ and ‘weekend warriors’, ‘tech enthusiasts’ and ‘heartland households’. These segments weren’t organic. They weren’t real groups that its members identified with. They were artificial, rational constructs meant to lump together people with shared characteristics who would perceive the same message similarly. And they worked, so long as The Truth Machine worked.

‘Group marketing’ (a deceptively simple term that holds deep insight) accepts that experts, numbers and mass media are losing their authority to sway our choice-making. We just don’t trust these mass-manufactured truths anymore. But we do trust our group(s). And so, more and more of our buying decisions are based on the logic, ‘I’ll buy this because my group buys it.’

Within this growing phenomenon, Harun and Nilufar have clarified an important new rule in how to create successful brands. It used to be that a company had a Product, attached a Story to that product, and this P+S became a Brand that people Consumed. P+S=B, and B –> C.

Group marketing demands a new equation. The stronger the corporate Story, the less freedom groups have to tell their own stories with a Product, and the less useful it is to the group as an expressive device. So the goal is to get the Product into the Group’s hands with a minimum of corporate storytelling. Instead, let the Group build the Brand as the sum of its members’ Individual Stories. Harun and Nilufar compiled several successful examples, my favorite of which is how Mountain Dew infiltrated skateboarding groups in Colombia. (Look for this tactic, and you start to see it everywhere…)

Truth As A Disease

To repeat myself: more and more of our buying decisions are based on the logic, ‘I’ll buy this because my group buys it.’

What worked for Pepsi’s Mountain Dew product also worked for Cambridge Analytica’s political messaging. Ideas were manufactured, planted into groups, and accepted by group members as truth because the ideas came to them via the group.

This is where business and politics differ. Businesses can adapt how they persuade consumers to buy things to this new group-centric approach, and the economy will still function fine. It’s less clear that we can say the same about our politics.

Liberal democracy isn’t built to operate on truth. It’s built to operate on doubt. Liberal democracy is an Enlightenment project from the Age of Reason. It assumes that truth cannot be known in advance (a priori, as the philosophers say). Instead, society must grope toward the truth by making guesses—and being sensitive to what the people find out along the way. Democracy is an exploration. It depends upon a shared commitment to discovery.

Now, thanks to all these competing Truth Machines, a pre-Enlightenment culture of truth is returning—and spreading. It is a blight that threatens the whole ecology of our political system. When too many people believe they have found truth, democracy breaks down. Once truth has been found, the common project of discovery is complete. There is no more sense in sharing power with those who don’t realize it. There is no more sense in curiosity, in new evidence.

Curing Ourselves Of Truth

To rescue the possibility of groping toward Paradise democratically, we need to inject our own group discourses with doubt.

I don’t know how we manage that feat. (But I’m open to suggestions!) I only know that it’s the logical answer. If an idea is foreign to the group, the group rejects it. Therefore, only group insiders can introduce the group to doubts about its own shared ‘truths’.

Only Nixon could go to China.

And so (I bet you thought you’d never hear this one), the world needs more Nixons.


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