Rethinking the art of influence in the technology age

To say the past few weeks has been a period of self-examination for American media and those in the technology communication space is something of an understatement. In the post-election haze, fingers have been pointed and accusations have been flung as to who is responsible for influencing the outcome, and the polls’ utter failure to predict it.

What is clear is that the traditional channels of persuasion have changed, and the ramifications across the communications industry will now be with us for a long time to come. Today, I want to look at the shifting concept of influence and what it means to engage audiences in the future.

The truth is even more subjective

While people’s views have long been divided along party political lines, certain outlets were broadly respected and considered to be bastions of the truth. That is no longer the case.

The President-elect is still waging a 3am Twitter campaign against the New York Times specifically, and the ‘mainstream media’ in general. And one glance at the comments section confirms that his supporters agree the newspaper is biased, supports ‘elites’ and is loose with the truth.

The flip side is that sites like Breitbart News – long the outlet of the so-called Alt-Right movement – have now gained a level of prominence and credence that neither their editorial approach or their tolerance of conspiracy theories warrants.  

This means that people on all sides of the political spectrum are now more likely than ever to accuse media outlets of institutionalized bias, undermining their credibility and questioning their role in informing the body politic.

It is worth remembering that an overwhelming number of media editorial boards endorsed one candidate – something almost unheard of in any election, and it had no effect whatsoever on the outcome.

Closely related to this is the daily increase in audiences that turn to social media as a source of authentic news. However, in many cases, social media has become little more than an echo chamber of our views, or worse, the home of partisan rhetoric and outright lies.

Facebook and Google are currently in defense mode, arguing that the proliferation of fake news sites – extremely partisan websites creating content that is designed to look like legitimate news – on their platforms did not impact the election in a significant way. In fact, Zuckerberg claims that only 1% of posts on Facebook carry fake news, however, many, including those inside the company, are not convinced.

Take for example a story which was published to Facebook three days before the election, from the “Denver Guardian”, that tacitly implied the Democratic presidential nominee arranged for the double homicide of a fictional FBI investigator and his fictional wife. Not surprisingly, it’s completely fake. But that hasn’t stopped it from racking up over 560,000 shares on Facebook.

Where to next?

When no media outlet is now considered authoritative or impartial, and social media is subject to unchecked manipulation, where does that leave communications professionals in creating an influencer strategy?

The answer isn’t clear. While social media has already shifted the needle in terms of traditional communication strategies, we are now at the point where the content people view is increasingly curated and defined by their social and political views.

For brands this is a challenge. Most brands do and should remain apolitical but in a world where the content that people view is increasingly defined by their political allegiance, and where fake information is viewed as fact, the traditional rules of engagement need a rethink.

There are no easy solutions, but I recommend brands of all sizes remain focused on telling an authentic story, based on demonstrable facts. At all costs avoid hyperbole that can subject you and your brand to ridicule and accusations.  

It is also vital to manage the process of external messaging tightly – limit your social media presence to one brand-run account per platform, be transparent but avoid engaging in online back and forth, even if provoked. Be cognizant of the broader environment – as I said last week, there is a shift in mood and issues like whether a product is made in the US, employs US workers and pays a fair wage are dominating the discourse. If these issues are relevant to your company, think carefully about how to address them.

We are truly living in unique times, and we should expect the ramifications to trickle down into all aspects of communication – particularly how we engage and persuade audiences.

On a positive note, we may also be witnessing a turning pointing in the proliferation of unchecked social media content. Google just announced it would ban websites peddling fake news from using its online advertising service and just hours later, Facebook updated the language in its policy which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.

Perhaps we have already reached the tipping point in this new era of influence. Only time will tell.

Valerie Chancommunications