The threat of misinformation can impact any aspect of a brand, from designing a campaign to
managing the reputation of an organisation and its products.
- Misinformation on a social media platform does not stay within that sphere and false information started there can have brand consequences that need addressing.
- Don’t rebut misinformation that threatens people’s core beliefs – and when you do, frame it carefully.
- A brand’s ‘deeper truths’ will be more effective if they resonate well with the target audience’s core beliefs.
Why it matters
Misinformation – defined as false or inaccurate information – has real world consequences for brands operating across both the public and private sector.
- Think about what objective truths these misleading narratives are leveraging, and how your brand can protect against them with your own counter-narratives.
- Relationships – whether they’re with public figures or with personal networks – are kryptonite for misinformation. Finding effective high-profile communicators as well as micro-influencers can do more to undermine misinformation than a perfectly structured rebuttal.
- Because of the way content recommendation algorithms work, by directly engaging with misinformation (i.e. replying or quote tweeting), a brand increases the chances of more users seeing the original false content.
Misinformation – defined as false or inaccurate information – has real world consequences for brands operating across both the public and private sector. It is often most associated with governments and the consequences are considerable. It can extend the length of a pandemic, delay climate action and put minority groups in danger. But it’s no less of an issue for businesses where it can damage reputation, decrease sales and lead to wasted media spend. If you’re involved in any aspect of a brand from designing a campaign to managing the reputation of your organisation and its products, here are five things to consider about the threat of misinformation:
1. When social media noise requires your attention and concern
Social media – regardless of what the sales reps of social listening tools tell you – isn’t a reliable, quantitative measure of how the public feels. Social media is a skewed sample: for example, internal documents at Twitter show that only 10% of users account for 90% of content on the platform. So when it comes to measuring the success of a campaign basing it on what social media users are saying, instead of how the public actually feels, can lead to bad strategic decisions.
Even worse, because of the way content recommendation algorithms work, by directly engaging with misinformation (i.e. replying or quote tweeting), you increase the chances of more users seeing the original false content.
That said, information on a social media platform does not stay within that sphere and false information started there can have brand consequences that need addressing. Just look at what Eli Lilly has recently experienced when amid the Elon Musk Twitter era turmoil, a verified but fake Eli Lilly Twitter account announced it was going to make its insulin free in the US. Its stocks dropped 4.5% and the pharmaceutical giant had to hastily issue a statement putting the record straight.
Bottom line: Take social media noise with a pinch of salt, but recognise when corrections need to be made.
2. What and when misinformation needs rebuttal
Sometimes misinformation becomes so widespread, and a direct threat to our target behaviours (such as
product purchases or vaccination sign ups), that we have to directly rebut it. The UK government’s advice on misinformation recommends that communicators only directly rebut misinformation if it threatens target behaviours and it does not contradict the audience’s core beliefs – as this can produce an adverse reaction.
For example, an appropriate false story for rebuttal could be the belief that electric vehicles (EVs) are more expensive to run than petrol or diesel vehicles. For automotive manufacturers, correcting this falsehood is vital, especially as the initial outlay for EVs can be substantially higher than for traditional vehicles and driving habits need adapting to charging requirements. To overcome these barriers, a clear message around cost-benefits in terms of fuelling needs to be widely communicated.
But when rebutting misinformation, we need to think carefully about how to structure it. The Debunking Handbook from Bristol University’s Professor Stephan Lewandowsky recommends sandwiching misinformation between the truth to reduce its prominence, and to explain the logical fallacy behind the misinformation.
Bottom line: Don’t rebut misinformation that threatens people’s core beliefs – and when you do, frame it
3. Know your deeper brand truths
Sometimes the best response to a lie isn’t a fact, it’s a deeper truth. When faced with a piece of misinformation that is intertwined with your audience’s core belief system, but doesn’t cause immediate harm to a target behaviour (for example, reputational and trust challenges), then the best course of action is to focus on challenging the narrative, rather than the information itself. Often the purpose of misleading information isn’t to misinform, but to drain our energy and distract us from our key messages.
Think about what objective truths these misleading narratives are leveraging, and how your brand can protect against them with your own counter-narratives. If negative sentiment is focusing on how your product is for ‘elites’ and not for regular people, can you inoculate your audience with messaging focused on cost saving and ensuring your content displays the diversity of people who have chosen to purchase your product? Ocado has launched an interesting partnership with ‘posh chef’ Nigella Lawson in launching a ‘Nigella Loves’ a curated aisle of in-store products for a range of exclusive recipes to feed a family of four for no more than £1.25 per portion.
Ocado is keen to dispel the idea that it is too expensive and not as good value as other supermarkets or home delivery brands. By using a chef – who is a real, long-term customer of Ocado – more usually associated with luxury and indulgence, Ocado has managed to create the suggestion that even when times are hard, you don’t have to go downmarket. You can still channel your inner Nigella.
Bottom line: You can prevent much of the damage of misinformation by proactively targeting your audience with counter narratives.
4. Think about values – know what your audience cares about
A brand’s ‘deeper truths’ will be more effective if they resonate well with the target audience’s core beliefs. Studies have continuously shown that our political beliefs, for example, can have a strong effect on what information and sources we consider to be ‘fake’.
Let’s take solar panels for homeowners as another example. If politically conservative audiences are more
vulnerable to misinformation about solar energy, targeting them with content emphasising the urgency of tackling climate change with renewable energy will be far less effective than focusing on independence, security and self-sufficiency.
This has been the approach British designer and manufacturer of renewable energy products myenergi has taken with its positioning around ‘energy independence has arrived’.
Bottom line: Use ‘value lenses’ to find unique ways of appealing to sceptical audiences.
5. Which messengers embody the counter narrative?
Counter-narratives don’t have to be explicit, they can be implicit too. Our choice of messenger, partner or spokesperson can say more than the message itself. Mapping a brand’s counter-narrative against our messengers may identify gaps and opportunities for new avenues to reach our audiences more effectively. Greta Thunberg, for example, has been such an effective climate communicator because she disrupts damaging narratives about climate action. How can someone assert that climate action is being pushed exclusively by powerful elites when its primary messenger is a child with no pre-existing wealth, power or political influence?
When a fake news story ran on WorldTruth.TV that claimed pesticides from Monsanto were responsible for Brazil’s microcephaly cases – and not the Zika virus – the agrochemical company decided the best messengers to counter this were its employees and encouraged them to use social media to put their case to friends and contacts. The company opted for this approach as a more effective way of quelling the misinformation than if it put out anything directly.
But Monsanto’s was an unusual tactic. Relationships – whether they’re with public figures or with our personal networks – are kryptonite for misinformation. So finding effective high-profile communicators as well as micro-influencers can do more to undermine misinformation than a perfectly structured rebuttal.
Bottom line: You might need to redistribute resources away from agonising over content and towards securing the right messengers.
This article was written by Stefan Rollnick, Head of The Misinformation Cell.