This isn’t a case study for business school. This is piling oily rags next to the fireplace and then acting surprised when the house catches fire.
OK, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. But a couple of days ago an essay on Medium characterized fake news as one of those “disruptive innovations” that upsets an entire market segment and sets established business models on their heads or some such. Businesses that “insist that consumers conform to their vision of what people should want will become relics of the past,” Sam Mallikarjunan argues. He contrasts them with “firms that continually engage in deep customer-centric jobs-to-be-done analyses and orient their offerings around doing that job;” the second group, he argues, will thrive.
So what’s that job? His answer is a little disturbing:
The job-to-be-done served by fake news is to reinforce existing beliefs and mitigate the immensely uncomfortable feelings caused by exposure to information that contradicts those beliefs. Fake news articles are to cognitive dissonance as decongestants are to a stuffy nose — they relieve the discomfort caused by cognitive capacity clogged with contradictory evidence.
It’s a little difficult to pinpoint where Mallikarjunan’s coming from, because he seems to recognize that there’s a difference between trading information and ideas, and just finding a better way to make widgets. On the other hand, he persists in treating the whole phenomenon as if it’s best understood as a failed business model.
And that’s just a little hard to accept. If we take a step back and view this in a larger context, it’s worth recalling the role that fake news and phony content played in the ascendancy of you-know-who. It’s also worth remembering that we’re not immune to it up here: spending problem not revenue problem, barbaric cultural practices snitch line, just for starters.
But it’s not just pop-culture or political memes. And it’s not just the manufactured worldview peddled by the Fox and Sun machines of the world any more, either. We used to joke a few years ago about the delusional self-importance of neo-conservatives who bragged that they were creating their own reality. Fast-forward a few years and we’re already seeing the fundamental, and, one fears, irreconcilable differences between people who get their “news” from different sources and construct their own views of reality accordingly.
And much of the time, we’re not even seeing just how deep the symptoms go. As marketers, we’re all aware of the importance of search engine ranking, and why we want to appear at the top of the first page when users do Google searches. Carole Cadwalladr’s recent feature in the Guardian details just how profoundly the fake-news phenomenon has affected the world’s largest stores of knowledge, and how we access it.
It’s a lengthy piece, and it cites Jonathan Albright’s work in charting the phony-content ecosystem in more detail. Trying to summarize it here wouldn’t do it justice, but among the troubling effects Cadwalladr notes is what happened when she tried to perform a few elementary searches:
I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad. Though later, I think that perhaps what I’ve actually done is scraped the topsoil off the surface of 2016 and found one of the underground springs that has been quietly nurturing it. It’s been there all the time, of course. Just a few keystrokes away… on our laptops, our tablets, our phones. This isn’t a secret Nazi cell lurking in the shadows. It’s hiding in plain sight.
So one paranoid site links to another racist site links to another sexist site and the whole nauseating mess gets tweeted, distilled and amplified through a bunch of Reddit discussions, and posted on God knows how many Facebook feeds. Add to that the junk-content pushers’ success in gaming search algorithms, and before long you’ve got not just one self-reinforcing little bubble, not just another Trending Story™, but a whole new reality not far removed from the Dark Ages. Just read Cadwalladr’s description of what happens when she types the words “are women … ” into the search bar:
I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e w-o-m-e-n”. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one …
It’s no great insight, of course, to observe that not everything we find on the internet is true, and it’s easy, at this point, to reiterate, once again, the importance of critical thinking. But the human brain can only analyze and process so much, and when nine of the top ten results of a Google search say the same thing, that critical-thought process becomes that much harder.
It’s a bit of an oversimplification to reduce the dilemma to an either-or proposition, but when faced with hateful online garbage, there’s one school of argument that says: ignore it. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t give them the attention / validation they want so desperately. Rise above. Blow them off. Problem is, that’s part of what brought us President Trump.
And then there’s another school, which says: engage with them. Take them seriously. Push back. Don’t let them pollute public conversation unchallenged. And the problem with that, one fears, is that that means fighting on their terms, giving them what they want, getting down into the mud, and getting covered. It’s exhausting. It’s meant to be exhausting.
And this is why the explosion of biased, racist, ideologically-driven, hateful, climate-change-denying, Astroturfed content is such a reason for concern. It’s not just a little conspiracy-theory fantasy promoted by the likes of Alex Jones or the Breitbart fever swamp — it grows and metastasizes. It has real world consequences, and dangerous ones at that.
A few weeks ago, we were discussing the choice between clicky and credible. Here’s where the moral element arises, to the extent that anyone still recognizes one. This is what happens because of this garbage, and because mainstream outlets have been so reluctant to call bullshit for what it is.
We’ve got crazy people with guns walking into pizzerias looking for evidence of child-abuse conspiracies linked to Hillary Clinton, thanks to this. We can’t just treat it like a business challenge.