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Why Misinformation Persists and Thrives: The “Grand Conflict Against Scheming Enemies”

by Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications

Hat’s off to Max Fisher of the New York Times for settling a question roiling dinner tables and family rooms across the country in this ceaseless topsy-turvy age of misinformation: How on earth can people believe the outlandish viral nonsense that persists and thrives on social media? Child sex trafficking at a pizza shop promulgated by politicians! A president scheming to limit our burger and barbeque consumption!

Fisher’s headline explains it all in five words: “Belonging is Stronger Than Facts.” Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci elaborates in MIT Technology Review: “We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.” And the more gullible audiences become to misinformation, the slicker bad actors get in seeding the public with obfuscation, misinterpretation and lies on social platforms.

Clients reach out to us regularly, wringing their hands about the beating their reputation is taking from a legion of Twitter and Facebook trolls. So, what can you do when you’re the social media target of disinformation du jour?

  • Proactively seek social allies. You can no longer post your news to social platforms and walk away with your fingers crossed hoping it will somehow become viral. You must work to make it happen.  Get aggressively proactive and ask the influential folks following you to retweet and share your content with their followers. Who are the influencers in your industry niche you can poach? Florida Paints hired a 22-year old who attracted 2.4 million TikTok followers – an enviable demographic for any company looking to grow and influence a huge, up-and-coming consumer buying segment.
  • Stop legitimizing fake news. We’re all just as titillated by outrageous posts as the trolls who spread them. Like the news media, many people tend to share disinformation with an indignant or outraged comment: “Can you believe this?” “This is B.S.” You’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve done it. It promulgates the lies and exposes them to an even broader social media audience. Don’t give salacious content any more oxygen. Stop that practice. Just stop.
  • Make your news sexier. I don’t mean sleazier or sensational. But take a hard, honest second look at your news release draft. Is it full of acronyms, jargon and insider baseball? If the answer is yes, rewrite it so a teenager would understand it – and want to read all of it. Strip out all the passive voice. Use action verbs and unexpected adjectives. Find the emotion in your story, highlight it and suddenly your writing resonates. Get the dull out.

An M.I.T. study reported in Science says that, surprisingly, truthtellers are in the majority on social media. Robinson Meyer wrote “Users who share accurate information have more followers, and send more tweets, than fake-news sharers. These fact-guided users have also been on Twitter for longer, and they are more likely to be verified. In short, the most trustworthy users can boast every obvious structural advantage that Twitter, either as a company or a community, can bestow on its best users.”

But trolls win the numbers game, retweeting and sharing with millions of like-minded people. You’ll never sway the most hardcore fake news acolytes, though you have a shot persuading the undecided masses on the fence and evangelizing your true believers. But you can’t be complacent. Your mom was wrong. The bully won’t just go away if you ignore him.

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