By Sean Ryan, VP Digital Strategy at i.e. network
The Age of Enlightenment offers clues for how we can best address our fast-paced transformation – specifically in content marketing – in how we communicate, distill, and trust the information we receive and share online:
- Transparency breeds trust
- Distribution of information requires great responsibility
- Open and organized dialogue makes everyone smarter
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire
It was during the age of enlightenment that philosophers and scientists began structuring information in more organized, accessible ways. Voltaire’s dictionary, for example, was arranged alphabetically. This was a new way of contextualizing information – described as “a chaos of clear ideas”.
The topics, often taboo, were squarely in the spirit of the enlightenment: undermining traditional authority through reason and information sharing.
In a way, it’s a brand’s worst nightmare – if, of course, that brand has something to hide. At the time, the biggest “brands” were the church and royalty – overlords of the fiefdom. Science and data conflicted with the proverbial company line, and a disintermediation of information sharing and thought permeated the civilized world.
This past decade produced a similar shift – both in the organization of our information and the rebellion against the status quo: A new chaos of clear(ish) ideas…Timelines, algorithms, and conversation threads now catalog how and what we discuss. Meanwhile, we become less and less trusting of our digital platform “overlords” (like Facebook) as data breaches and political manipulation have exposed vulnerabilities in the perceived trustworthiness and transparency of digital communication.
While the access to more information online expands at lightspeed, our distrust in what we come upon online only grows.
We are learning the painful lesson of ‘just because it’s on TV doesn’t make it true’ all over again – but in digital. And, thankfully, we are taking some bold actions to ensure we don’t end up in a digital post-truth era… many of which may have been inspired by the same thought that drove the enlightenment. These measures might be difficult, obnoxious or financially inconvenient for brands – but history teaches us it’s the correct approach.
Below, we’ll walk through just a few of the measures taken, and how they deliver on some of the key lessons we’ve learned from the past:
- Transparency and the Informed Consumer: GDPR
“The first step towards vice is to shroud innocent actions in mystery, and whoever likes to conceal something sooner or later has reason to conceal it”. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
We saw the implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) less than a year ago. This sweeping reform is intended to protect consumers’ data and privacy when interacting online. Essentially, this gives the consumer more control and insight into how their information is being used, where, and for what purpose.
These regulations are a direct result of multiple data breaches and brands (and campaigns) being exposed for using highly personal information in their ad targeting.
The problem was many consumers had no idea they were freely giving much of this data to corporations before it was mishandled, misused or stolen. Exposure to these crises fueled action like the regulatory GDPR rules. This was a huge win for privacy and consumer data rights – and a big step towards regaining consumers trust when interacting with brands online.
- The Fake News Fight: The Great Responsibility Required to Win Against Active Measures
“There is a very remarkable inclination in human nature to bestow on external objects the same emotions which it observes in itself, and to find every where those ideas which are most present to it”. – David Hume
It seems as if we continue to learn something new every week since the 2016 election about foreign entities leveraging social media for disinformation. These were “active measures” – actions taken by foreign governments like Russia to disrupt and sow discord. The more we learn about these active measures, the more we see the vulnerabilities of social media.
People trust what they read – specifically mis-information – at far too high of a rate. They can also get caught in an algorithm-created echo-chamber, only being exposed to the voices reflecting back what they already believe.
This puts more pressure on media companies – and brands – to put more resources into created more credible content, and enhancing the editorial process in newsrooms and brand newsrooms alike.
To that end, we are seeing a slow but measurable shift to a more informed social media user. From small steps like account verification, to larger shifts by platforms like Facebook flagging incorrect information being shared on their platform.
Is the problem solved? Far from it. But in the last year we saw executives from social media companies questioned by congress – and as painful as it was to hear old men ask really dumb questions about social media, it ultimately forced more conversation, more transparency and a more informed user.
This sort of change takes time – and is not fast enough for many. But as Voltaire postulates:“the best is the enemy of the good”. We are seeing the kind of incremental steps necessary for progress.
- Open Dialogue on Trial: When Fake News is Not Free Speech
“Truth springs from argument amongst friends” – David Hume
There is a flip side to social media companies picking and choosing what’s shared on their platform – and that’s the issue of censorship. Perhaps most notably in 2018, Twitter was forced to deal with organizations like InfoWars – which spews the utterly false as truth on social media with millions of views and followers. There was a public uproar over the outlet that pushed provably false conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, PizzaGate, Birtherism and other hot-button issues.
Twitter had a crisis: do we shut this account down or do we allow for free and uncensored speech?
Twitter chose to remove InfoWars, and ban it entirely from it’s platform. Other social media companies followed suit.
This type of quality control/editorial/censorship, etc. is the kind of dilemma all social media companies will be facing in the years to come. All the while, they will need to balance this control/censorship with the importance of dialogue.
Aristotle wrote that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
So it goes, too, in navigating our social media discourse.
Meanwhile, brands trying to do content marketing will be stuck in the middle. As long as there is a level of distrust in digital content, the bar for brands will only be higher. Commitment to facts, high editorial standards and consistent storytelling are the hallmarks for brands trying to gain consumer trust and cut through any quality control mechanisms implanted in the digital space.
“Educate and inform the whole mass of people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty” – Thomas Jefferson
Just as with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary was described as “a chaos of clear ideas”, we’ve reached a new apex of information sharing. And while there is clearly chaos in the digital and social landscape, our “age of digital enlightenment” will lead to better dialogue, better ideas – and ultimately, a more accessible truth – just like we saw in the 18th century. If brands don’t take note, they’ll end up just like the printing press: obsolete.