Alternative facts, fake news, and filter bubbles – navigating the new(s) norm

By Jason MacKenzie FCIPR FCIM, 

Managing Partner, Corporate Communications

‘Post-Truth’ was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016. It’s a contemporary adjective for an ancient concept. It defines an era where facts carry less force than emotional appeals, and opinions can be shaped more profoundly by stories than by hard data.

Post-truth nestles well in our postmodern age, which denies the existence of universal truths. Objectivity is ditched in favour of an individualistic, egocentric focus on ‘my truth’ at the expense of a shared understanding of reality. Subjectivity prevails, virtue-signalling abounds, and digital and social media sucks us into echo chambers. The result? Our worldviews are reinforced and we become increasingly tribal, even myopic.

If post-truth is the canvas, ‘fake news’ paints the landscape. It’s all-pervasive, and it manifests in different forms and phrases, like ‘alternative facts’, which Kellyanne Conway used when debating the size of the crowd on the National Mall for President Trump’s inauguration. She later clarified that she was referring to an alternative perspective, not an alternative reality.

Are we inhabiting an Orwellian nightmare? Is this the new ‘Newspeak’? Will we ever be safe from manipulation and obfuscation? Possibly not. But there are ways to cut through this nefarious malaise and maintain clear thinking.

Firstly, we must realise that ‘fake news’ isn’t news at all. It’s the antithesis of news. Whilst there has never been absolute editorial integrity and impartiality, mainstream media still functions as a check and balance to the deluge of digital dross that swamps the internet. Cross-reference everything with credible sources. Step two – recognise that there’s nothing new here. In 1928, Edward Bernays was clear about the power of propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Attempts to manipulate perception are as old as civilisation itself, but the rise of social media has dramatically increased opportunities for disinformation.

The third step is to be aware that social media algorithms serve us with more of what we ‘like’. There’s a danger that our Facebook timeline and Twitter feed become clogged with opinions that reinforce our worldview, creating filter bubbles of like-minded content, fuelling groupthink.

That’s the shallow end. The digital ghettos that cocoon our beliefs are concerning – but the growing potential for the weaponisation of information is altogether alarming.

Russian ‘click farms’ are propaganda factories packed with digitally-savvy operatives whose express intent is the destabilisation of Western democracy. They strive to achieve this by creating ‘sock puppet’ social media profiles to foment unrest and drive discontent in the public sphere. This is the thin end of the cyber warfare wedge, with full-blown hacking and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks being both more blatant and less frequent.

So how do we navigate this information minefield with discernment? It’s important to understand why content is being created, by whom, and how it’s spread. It’s also vital to dive deeper into the nature of ‘fake news’.

First Draft News categorises fake news, ranging from (almost) innocent to downright devilish:

  1. Satire or parody. Private Eye (for example) presents false, yet humorous stories as if true. Lots of internet memes also fall into this category.
  2. False connection. A headline, photo, illustration, diagram or caption doesn’t match the content. This manifests itself across print and digital media, as clickbait, or sometimes through sloppy sub-editing.
  3. Misleading content. Misleading use of information, for example presenting editorial comment as fact, framing an issue or individual in a inaccurate manner.
  4. False context. Genuine content, shared alongside false contextual information.
  5. Imposter content. The impersonation of genuine sources, like established news agencies.
  6. Manipulated content. The distortion of genuine information or imagery, ranging from sensationalist headlines to doctored photos.
  7. Fabricated content. Completely false stories and information.

Whether meddling in elections or simply messing with our minds, the media landscape is increasingly cluttered, chaotic and confusing. We’re faced with the challenge of sifting fact from fiction, making it ever more challenging for brands to cut through the noise with compelling corporate communication.

Good luck: it’s a (cyber) jungle out there.

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