By Angela Slezak
There’s a lot of discussion today about “fake” news and how to acquire “real” news. Fake and real are binary suggesting “news” is either one or the other. Yet there seems to me to be at least one other, huge, category for news and information – marketing.
While I truly believe in facts, they also seem to me to be a minority of the thought and communication that occurs. If I boil it down, I might say facts are generally objects (such as a car having four wheels) or effects on objects (such as gravity). If I say the car is blue, others might say it’s actually black or metallic gray. Even color is not “fact.” Color, also, can’t be described except in relation to itself.
Situations involving people and events rarely are agreed upon by the participants and observers. We might say that when an event occurs, there a handful of facts but each participant will see something “real.” To many others, our interpretation will be “fake.”
Working in the profession of analytics, I see daily that no “fact” or information goes unchallenged. Several years ago I engaged in a hearty, public debate on this with an intelligent but truly emotionally unhinged consultant. He wanted me to simply state the “facts.” I argued that I could put one variable (fact) on the slide but that interpretation would vary and laughed inside at the joys that awaited him.
Challenging “facts” both in politics and corporate is a way to procrastinate dealing with the meaning behind those “facts” such as we must stop spending money or using all the world’s resources. Challenging facts can be a smokescreen and harms those who truly want to delve deeper to understand a situation.
In another observation for the corporate world, when results are what we want to see, we rarely challenge “the facts.” When results are not what we want to see, we spend an inordinate amount of time researching and explaining them.
Rational people do a lot of rationalizing. I see it every day in my data-driven profession.
Real, Fake or Marketing?
Our public worry over fake and real news is long overdue. We avoid it because when we discover that we share our entire worldview with no one, it’s a bit disconcerting. What if there is no shared reality outside of objects?
If there is no shared reality, then meaning is easily influenced. There is where marketing enters the scene. Marketing is mostly associated with advertising but also involves the number-crunching analytics which is why you receive coupons that have exactly the product you previously purchased.
The MBA definition of marketing is about how goods and services move to a consumer. The 4Ps are product, placement, price and promotion.
Since I’d don’t have an MBA, my own definition differs. The MBA definition has a hidden premise – we have need for all the products we purchase. For me, marketing is an attempt to appeal to identity to affect behavior and drives “need.” What we need is very important, but limited. Need and want are not as clearly separated as they were before the explosion of consumer goods.
Marketing is used in politics. That “fake” news is absorbed is due to marketing’s ability to tap into your identity. “Fake” news is appealing which is why it’s used both offensively and defensively. In politics, marketing is called public relations. I’d also say it’s called propaganda, but usually in this country we reserve this term for the public relations of other countries, especially when we disagree with it.
When President Obama said the economy was doing great, this was an example of public relations. For Obama, the economy may have been great in relation to where it started. Whether the economy is doing good or bad is also a debate where “facts” are often interpreted differently by economists. Also, much of the economy is about consumer confidence so saying the economy is great is a way to boost confidence leading to a better economy.
President Obama was one to tap deeply into the data side of marketing – analytics – to determine how to effectively campaign to his base. Analytics is also the core of what is called gerrymandering where districts are sliced and diced for boundaries that provide the maximum votes for one party (for example, receiving 40% of the votes but 60% of the seats).
Health information online is prime for marketing, and not just the ads on the side of the website. If you read 100 online articles about a topic, you’ll find not only that they say the same thing, but the actual words and content are identical. That is called curated content. Finding a dissenting voice or sideline details is very difficult.
Are you doing a search online for pizza? The world of search engine optimization determines which pizza you see at the top of the screen. Did one million people love that movie? Really? Or was it marketing?
A couple of years ago, my other blog dropped in views but in a very specific proportion to its normal trend. I learned that Google changed an algorithm devaluing non-authoritative sources. My blogs are not profit-making ventures. But what if I were a small business owner dependent upon my blog or small website and Google suddenly ranked me so low, you’d never find me?
Marketing is driving almost everything you see online. If you click on a story about a gorilla attacking a child and many others do as well, the marketing engines rank “human – animal” stories high and then you will continue to see like stories. In marketing, an early mentor explained “like breeds like.”
If we try to get outside of marketing to get “news,” it’s difficult. Reading news on the BBC website reveals that they know my location and choose to feed me news relevant to my location. The problem is that I go to that site to get news not relevant to my location, but to the world. It’s increasingly difficult to get outside of our marketing cage.
Don’t Click It
If marketing is behind much of our news and information, then clicking on a link is tantamount to asking for more of the same. As consumers of information, we must be like consumers of food. We don’t eat everything we see; we’d never drink an open bottle of water sitting on a park bench. Yet, when we consume our news, we don’t consider it’s intellectual and spiritual effect on our being.
Fake news is a result of marketing which is appealing to our identity and desires, like the episode The Cage from the original Star Trek. Our captain is on a planet where they want to keep him captive by using his internal images for pleasure or punishment. He chooses freedom over the eternal picnic of his memory.