Media

The Red Herring of Fake News

It’s been nearly two centuries since we first learned about the Vespertilio-homo: the bat-like humanoids that live on the moon.

News of the man-bat was first reported in The New York Sun newspaper — a long-running competitor to The New York Times — across six consecutive stories.  Falsely attributed to the astronomer John Herschel, the “Great Moon Hoax” series introduced us to a range of space creatures, including unicorns, all living in harmony with the man-bat on big hunk of cheese in the sky. 

We can’t say for sure why or how the story found its way into a legitimate newspaper … some suspect it was satire, some believe it was a more cynical attempt to boost circulation.

No matter the reason, one thing is for sure – fake news is not the new phenomenon we are making it out to be.

Today, communicators are bemoaning with intensity the seemingly out-of-nowhere proliferation of fake news.  It’s a genuine phenomenon, but not a new one.  Fake news, you see, is as old as satire itself.  Rather, it’s the media landscape that has changed.  In fact, for fake news, the landscape is as fertile as it has ever been.

We don’t have a problem with fake news. We have a problem with critical thinking.

Consider these:

  • Nearly half of today’s news consumers consider social media a primary news source; nearly eight in 10 millennials say the same. For professional communicators, social media remains the wild west.  Everyone’s (and anyone’s) input has an audience – no matter how credible.
  • Nearly six in 10 Facebook users claim to have shared content (thereby giving said content a boost of validity and visibility) without actually having clicked through to read and, more important, to validate the content. And while distrust of the media is higher than ever, people still overwhelmingly believe what they hear from their friends – especially if it aligns with their point of view.
  • Oh, and in 2015, the attention span of a human (8.25 seconds) officially dipped below that of a goldfish (nine seconds), according to Microsoft Research.

The media landscape is forcing consumers to consume media not to be informed, but to be validated. The way consumers respond to media today is devoid of critical thought, but not of emotion.  They feel just as strongly as ever about what they read or see; they’re just less informed.

Communicating in the attention-deficit age is about being mindful of how the audience responds not just to the content, but to the channel of communication. Facebook, for example, is showing its increasing power to build tribes and communities, but not to foster thoughtful conversation. 

Those organizations that use social media to wade into the treacherous waters of politics and advocacy are learning to brace themselves for the inevitable hostility of an emotionally charged and passively engaged audience.  Savvy organizations looking to advocate are being deliberate and selective in their planning, pairing potentially contentious messages with those channels that best allow for thoughtful, two-way dialogue.

We communicators must also connect with our audiences both emotionally and logically; the challenge in today’s landscape is knowing when to use which.  If social media has taught us anything, it’s that emotion, not logic, has resonance and stickiness – the qualities we as communicators crave. 

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