Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Question For You: What Is Lost In Our Age Of Social Media Hoaxes?

Wow, did you see the horrific Pace Salsa social media meltdown last weekend? As we now know, it was a hoax.

Or maybe last weekend you cheered on Elan Gale as he gave an arrogant airline passenger her comeuppance. That was a hoax, too.

Or maybe your friends tweeted and retweeted that amazing photo of a python that ingested the guy unlucky enough to fall asleep near the snake. Yep, another hoax.

We are awash in hoaxes. Perhaps that is nothing new, but nowadays the spread of hoaxes has been supercharged by the network power of social media. What used to be a rumor spread from one individual to the next in the physical world can today reach the world's online population in seven degrees of social networking separation.

Sometimes the hoaxes passed around social media are just for laughs; other times, they are cruel and dangerous. In the wake of actor Paul Walker's death, some fans "liked" a Facebook page started by the star's daughter, Meadow Walker, which, inevitably, was revealed to be fake. And yesterday, a Kentucky high school emptied over fake threats shared through social media.

Some brands have gotten into the hoax game, mistaking a momentary bump in retweets for some sort of deeper brand benefit. Chipotle, a brand that otherwise strives for meaningful social engagement about the quality of food, for some reason thought it would a good idea to fake a social media account hack. The stunt worked to elevate word of mouth briefly, but how does it help a brand dedicated to improving the authenticity of food to be so inauthentic in social media?

Not to be left out, traditional media has been sucked into the game of hype and hoax. As social media enables information to spread faster--regardless of whether it is true or verified--even "respectable" news outlets get caught as they attempt to out-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed. Two weeks ago, Time Magazine's web site featured an article about a guy who drives his pet bear around in a Lamborghini, but the photo, the article and everything else was simply another Reddit hoax. Of course, sometimes the news media's rush to match the speed of Internet rumor has more concerning ramifications, such as when innocent people were mistakenly identified as the Boston Marathon bombers.

My question is what all this means to communication in the social and mobile era. If consumers continue to gravitate to the sensational, web sites chase after attention and traffic as quickly as possible, and no on seems bothered by whether the most widely-shared information is even true or not, what suffers?

One casualty may be trust. If our world remains awash with news and information that is false, who do we trust? Our friends and social networks that spread the hoaxes? The news media that aids and abets the broadcast of misinformation? Should I give money to the young woman dying of cancer or try to win one of the 400 PlayStation 4s being given away on Facebook? Of course not--they're both hoaxes!

Remember when we use to speak of the importance of "authenticity" in the social era? Have we lost something in our rush for instant gratification, be it entertainment and distraction for the masses or traffic and attention for brands and media? And if something important is being lost, what is the solution?

Or, am I just an old fuddy-duddy worrying about truth in a world more interested in mourning Eddie Murphy. (Yes, that's yet another Twitter-fueled hoax.)

I'd appreciate your input in the comments below or on Twitter where I am @augieray.


Jeremy said...

The only people that really cared about authenticity and transparency were the PR people and others in media.

The public? They didn't care. They like(d) the fake character blogs because they resonated, in a media/commercial world and where funny. They like the hoax, the scam (ie the "homeless" woman who raised $60K+ for herself and it turns out she's not poor but it was a made up comment on Gawker) and more. They like to do the investigating to be better and more right than their friends, no matter the side.

But even with Pace, I'm not 100% convinced we know the whole story. Who creates an account back in August to punk a friend in December? And is tweeting out very corporate-esque tweets and retweets? That's a massive time commitment.

The sad part here is how fast the media picks up on these fake stories, and doesn't do the digging. How hard would it have been to call Delta and Sky Harbor to ask about the Elan incident? The rush to publish makes us all worse off and a generation unable to tell fact from fiction.

Augie Ray said...

I'm not in complete agreement, Jeremy (or maybe I just don't want to be.) Nontheless, your point is certainly well taken--why don't media and brands take the time to be careful? I think HuffPo and CNN might argue they need to move as quickly as Drudge and Buzzfeed in reporting rumors, or they'll lose traffic (and ad revenue), but I questions if news brands will lose in the end because they become no more trusted and reliable than, well, Drudge and Buzzfeed. People will always turn to senstational sites, but they still need a place to go when looking for real, true, verified and accurate news, I believe.

Unknown said...

Augie, I suppose I'm much less concerned about this because "People will always turn to sensational sites" because they, we, always turn to the sensational whenever it rears its head. At least on SM, the hoaxes are always revealed & usually quite quickly. OTOH, how many urban myths carried by (literal) WOM are still believed and repeated?

Augie Ray said...

Ken, for reasons that may be misguided, I simply feel that the hoaxes and noise in social are so pervasive that they are changing the way we humans consider information. There were always urban myths, but people had newspapers, Walter Cronkite and radio pumping out generally trustworthy information, plus we all listened to the same, few sources. But today, everyone hears what they want to hear--we've gone hyper-local, hyper-partisan, plus the hoaxes and BS seems just pervasive. I really do feel something is changing, and the level of fake or untruthful info is getting to be overwhelming as to make us all increasingly suspect of everything we hear.

Or, as I said, I'm just an old fuddy-duddy! :)

RobertKCole said...

The lines between journalism and entertainment have been blurring for years - and the networks/publishers that led the charge have been rewarded handsomely.

Stephen Colbert nailed it when he coined the term "truthiness"(the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true) back in 2005.

Marketers understand the public's fascination with sensationalism and celebrity, as well as their general tendency to quickly forgive transgressions - especially if they are well produced or funny.

Unfortunately, the byproduct is a public that accepts misinformation as truth and births urban legends that are later erroneously cited as canon.

It now ranges far beyond socially shared user generated content to span politics (Obama the Kenyan socialist,) advertising (Jeff Gordon test driving a car,) journalism (60 Minutes Benghazi report,) even medicine (Desiree Jennings' bizarre flu shot symptoms.)

It's one of the trade-offs that come with a hyper-connected society that sadly values entertainment over truth.

The one benefit is that it gives the people at Snopes.com something to do...

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Robert. Who knew Snopes would end up being the most trusted voice on the Internet? :)

Judy Gombita said...

For me this shows the difference between a marketing "campaign" (particularly for consumer products/services), versus the public relations "organizational narrative," which isn't nearly as eyebrow raising or interesting. But "reputation, value and relationship building" isn't that, for the most part....

Augie Ray said...

great comment, Judy. Success isn't in the bumps and spikes but in the long-standing and constant relationships your brand creates!