Web Summit – Rebuilding Trust in a Fake News World

November 6, 2018

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Today has been an incredible day. Despite having been to numerous large conferences in my time — Mobile World Congress, Cannes Lions, CES, Dreamforce to name a few — nothing could have prepared me for the quality, depth and scale of Web Summit.

At a time of great uncertainty for industry upon industry and the world itself, Web Summit has a mission to gather founders and CEOs — including our own CEO John Saunders — fast-growing startups, policymakers and heads of state to ask a simple question: Where to next? The event is called the “Davos for geeks” and you really can see why, when 70,000 people descend on Lisbon for the week to discuss some of the most pressing topics of our age.

And the topic that seems to be at the top of the agenda this year is fake news.

I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between John Saunders and Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large of The Atlantic, this morning, as well as a host of other discussion and panels throughout the day.

Here’s what I learned: There’s always been fake news, a tension between the teller and the listener or reader.

Ever since the invention of language, stories, gossip, tattletale, belief, disbelief, lies and truth have been part of the human condition. In the 17th Century, England fell victim to the “Popish plot,” whereby lies about a Catholic plot to kill King Charles II led to the execution of 22 innocent men — fake news was causing devastation hundreds of years ago.

So, what’s changed?

First, the sheer volume of disinformation out there. Today, we are subject to an overwhelming tsunami of news. People check their phones about 150 times a day in the developed world, according to the Center for Humane Technology. This equates to once every 6.4 minutes in a 16-hour day. And more than 2 billion people use Facebook — which is staggeringly about the number of conventional followers of Christianity.

Second, there’s a profound change in the way we access information and news.

Here are some scary stats for you:

  • Research shows that fake news headlines about the 2016 US elections fooled American adults 75% of the time.
  • False news stories are 70% more likely to be shared on social media than legitimate news stories [NBC News source]
  • Young and old are susceptible: the oldest and youngest cohorts are the most susceptible to fake news — 41% of consumers aged 18-34 and 44% of consumers 65 and older admit to falling for fake news.
  • 66% of people in the US believe that outside groups or agents are actively planting fake news stories [com]

Third, much of the argument around fake news is about more than just whether content is true or not. I’ve heard a lot of discussion today about intent. Is a story trying deliberately to mislead? Is it imposter content or manipulated content, such as a doctored video or picture? Or pure fabricated content, which is 100% false. You only have to consider Deepfake videos that show an altered reality that can make it virtually impossible for viewers to distinguish propaganda from reality — this Obama example probably being one of the most famous Deepfakes in recent times.

So, what can we do? John talked today about a five-point plan to mitigate against fake news that I think is great advice to all of us — as communications professionals, as well as everyday consumers, voters, parents and (probably) concerned citizens.

John Saunders’ 5-point Plan to Fight Fake News:

Number 1: Break out of our bubble.

We all need to escape the confines of confirmation bias and shine a light on our unconscious bias. We should embrace the views of others and acknowledge the other side in our own communications. We should stimulate and participate in debate and remember that social media platforms only give us more of the same. It’s up to us as individuals to change that pattern.

Number 2: Support true news content.

One of the beacons of hope is the revitalization of quality journalism. Subscriptions to newspapers are up, viewing figures of quality news programs are up, new news services are launched daily (Axios, Quartz) or added to existing platforms (Buzzfeed). We should all support this. We should buy or subscribe to a newspaper (in Bezos and Benioff’s cases, they literally did just that). We should support channels and platforms that do a good job. In short, we should part with some money…

Number 3: Bash the bad.

We need to call out “fake” when we see it. And not just let it go. We should be offended/outraged — and do this vocally and loudly, not just accept it and move on.

Number 4: Find an authentic voice.

To be taken seriously, we all need to find our authentic voice. This may sound a little new age, but this is essentially work we do with our clients to find:

  • A clear sense of purpose (what we are for).
  • A worked through point of view.
  • The courage to express it.

These are essential qualities. They build an authentic voice — trusted, believed — which has the weight to make a difference.

Number 5: Be alert. But positive.

This isn’t going away. So, we have to pay attention. Be skeptical, but positive. Take it seriously and don’t let things go.

We need to remember the significant benefits that the rapid dissemination of news can bring, too. Just look at the incredible example of The Blue Planet (searches of “plastic recycling” rose 55% off the back of that program), which made a massive, positive impact on people’s use and attitude towards plastic in a small amount of time.