31 Mar 2017

Is Your Brand Ready To Defend Against Fake News?

Last week, American espionage TV series Homeland explored a dark side of social media. The episode, Sock Puppets, involved revelations of a fake-news farm, using manufactured social media accounts to change the President’s policy agenda in the Middle East. Does any of this sound familiar?

If you’re on social media, no doubt you’ve some experience with this.  That time when someone with a name so perfectly innocuous added you to LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter? Fake. Those friend requests from beautiful women or men from Russia or parts of Asia that who you share no mutual connections with? Well, I don’t have to warn you about those ones, do I?

But, back to Homeland. The episode, which aired on Network Ten,  had a ripped-from-the-headlines moment. Set in a dark basement somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, a former CIA agent turned expert IT consultant is attempting to fix a computer management system:

Former undercover CIA agent, Max: So, I’m seeing Facebook accounts, Instagram, Twitter…

Trent: 4chan, 8chan, fuckin’ LinkedIn, whatever. We’re there.

Max: And this interface masks your identity.

Trent: It did until it stopped working. Didn’t O’Keefe tell you anything?

Max: Not really, no. All right, look. So, these sock puppets you’re missing,  they’re just a bunch of fake users with online lives that you manage, right?

Later, they bring the accounts back online

Max: Iraqbob.

Man: That’s me.

Max: Navywife.

Man: That’s me, too.

Trent: Deltaforcegroupie.

Woman: Yo.

Trent: So we’re back in business?

Max: You tell me.

[All cheering]

Trent: Vacation’s over. You’ll find a new set of talking points in your folders. Get outraged! Yeah. Let’s go!

It’s probably not exactly how it plays out in real life, but after some of the revelations of the 2016 US Presidential election, the concept of a shadowy cabal of operators creating fake social media posts to further their own interests seems considerably less outlandish than it did 12 months ago.

Image Source: sho.com/homeland

Why Does This Matter To Brands?

Traditionally, integrated marketing for brand communications used a multi-faceted approach. Advertising, sales, PR, direct marketing and social media combined to create a narrative that was disseminated to the audience. Social media disrupted this.

Consumers are now activists who complain about a product on the brand’s Facebook page or Twitter feed, with community manager’s ready to resolve their problems. But the focus of social media interactions is shifting, with politicians and brands increasingly affected by a new dark web movement.

In recent years, activists have become keyboard warriors and now we’re starting to see their activism turning to social issue politics and brands. Through the collective use of psychographic and behavioural data, rogue esoteric groups are amassing cohorts of fake social media accounts to launch fake-news assaults on brands, advertisers, and politicians.

And It’s Only Going To Get Worse

There’s a model of digital activism used by activist groups such as Getup! Members sign up with email info and social accounts, which the group harvests to influence politicians and brands, using social and digital tools to help consumers take action against unpopular policies like rising bank fees or climate change. Though Getup is not a fake news site. They are made up of genuine mainstream Australians.

But this style of playbook can just as easily be exploited by thousands of centrally controlled fake social media accounts. We have no way of knowing if they’re the work of interest groups, competing brands or someone else looking to exert influence.

Hypothetically, your brand could get caught up in a social crisis created by fake news sites, which gets shared by what look like mainstream Australians but are really just ‘sock puppet’ accounts. It’s unmitigated fake news, unhinged and not properly regulated.


What’s the Solution?

Your brand needs to define its storytelling and create a consistent narrative around a social cause, product launch or marketing campaign. This will inoculate it from potential attacks because you’ve built a strong resourceful framework to deal with an event like this during a potential social media crisis.

Many brands create their own newsrooms. It’s a great way to create content for your audience to share on social media channels and reach stakeholders, the media, the political class, colleagues, friends, family or anyone else you want to hear your branded stories.

Only through dedicated resources with campaign frameworks can your brand position itself to hold off potential threats from fake-news assaults. You don’t want to take the risk that fake news will tell your stories for you.

As the fake news operative in Homeland said: “Vacation’s over.”


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