In Wonder Woman, the new summer blockbuster from DC Comics, Diana Prince uses her “Lasso of Truth” to ensnare the bad guys and make them come clean. Her lasso is the ultimate weapon – nonviolent yet all-powerful.
The world could use that lasso right now.
“Truth” will be a recurring theme throughout this year’s Cannes Festival of Creativity, with sessions on “fake news” and related topics dotting the seminal meeting of the marketing minds. But truth is not just the latest buzzword or trend de jour – truth itself is under attack.
Thanks in part to social media balkanization, a growing rejection of experts and data-driven consumer targeting, a new “digital divide” has emerged – not a divide of access to technology, but of access to the truth. This divide is a pernicious wound, one that’s been torn deeper by our ever-insular online habits and the predilections of those who wish to keep us at odds.
Truth, Lies, and BS
The truth has always had a certain amount of pliability, otherwise known as bias. There’s a difference, however, between good old-fashioned bias and today’s “post-truth” world of outright bullshit.
Bias is the truth bent toward a point of view. Lies are the opposite of truth. But bullshit, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt once noted, is an unapologetic, wholesale rejection of the truth for personal, professional or political gain. We are so mired in bullshit today that telling lies would actually be an improvement.
Author Nicolas Negroponte tried to warn us in 1995, long before the polarizing Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and the entrance of “post-truth” (aka bullshit) into our lexicon. He feared the possibility of customizing our digital feeds to the point of excluding any information we didn’t like or agree with, thereby creating our own realities.
Negroponte couldn’t have been more prescient. Instead of mass media, today we have a mass of micro media. And while a micro media world might be great for marketing, it’s not so great for rational discourse.
The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed/Red Feed” Facebook tool, for example, puts this ever-widening truth divide on full display, showing how the same story can either be “reported” completely different or, in some cases, ignored altogether. And as a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, flooding our feeds with facts just makes the divide wider:
“Facts can only do so much,” the study’s authors said. “When people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter. In scientific terms, their beliefs become less ‘falsifiable’ because they can no longer be tested scientifically for verification or refutation.”
Closing the Divide – the News Media May Have a Solution
It’s been said “the truth will set you free.” But if the online news business is any indication, some people are now willing to put a price on that freedom.
New research from the American Press Institute indicates that consumers will in fact pay for news if it’s high quality and on specific topics they value:
“Those who pay for news rate their sources as highly reliable,” the report found. “Subscribers are clearly signaling that publishers cannot cost-cut their way to growth — attracting subscribers requires investment in premium content.” In other words, being reliable (and yes, truthful) is how to rise above the cacophony of media noise.
It’s fitting that the news business help solve this problem since it bears some responsibility. The media’s failure to adjust to a digital-first model sent ad revenue into free fall, which resulted in fewer reporters. These survivors quickly found they could produce more content by being stenographers instead of journalists.
Before long we went from stories going unchecked, to fake news sites making up stories altogether. And because the Internet didn’t distinguish between the New York Times and a blog site someone started five minutes ago, after a while neither did the public.
Here’s the Truth – It Comes Down to Trust
It’s far too easy, as we saw in this past election cycle, to create “news” with a little digital sleight of hand, or to replace black-and-white truths with colorful yet bogus memes.
But politicians, as well as brands, need to be careful. If you play loose and fast with the truth – or ignore it altogether – you risk losing trust.
Trust is the ultimate bond; it’s difficult to gain and nearly impossible to earn back, especially among younger audiences for whom trust is paramount. Savvy consumers will eventually find out if you’ve been lying and they will call you out on it.
Brands and their agencies have a unique opportunity to cut through the digital morass and lift the common discourse. This is not the time to give in and create PowerPoint decks on “Marketing in a Post-Truth World” – this is the time to fight back. To make a stand. To be an activist, not an apologist. We have to close the divide before it separates and swallows us forever.
Call it bullshit if you like. But it’s the truth.
About the Author: Gary Goldhammer, Creative Director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, is a former journalist with a passion for storytelling.