5 Reasons Brands Could Be the Next Victims of Fake News

Marketers must shed click fetish and make social a trusted haven

Brands need to be vigilant, taking responsibility for what they can control.
Davor Pavelic/Getty Images/Ikon Images

The specter of fake news debatably made an impact on the past presidential election, forced Google to take new steps to mitigate the problem and spurred Facebook to make changes to its Trending section. Now brands are starting to feel the effects.

David Berkowitz
Headshot: Alex Fine

There’s little doubt that the influence of social media and a hyper-focus on serving relevant content have created huge marketing opportunities for brands, but at what cost?

According to eMarketer, social media advertising is expected to hit almost $37 billion, more than doubling in a very short time. What’s more is that digital advertising spend is actually passing television ad spend in the U.S., representing 37 percent of total media ad spend. But, within the algorithmic battle between relevance and authenticity, can brands actually be hurt? The answer is yes, and the marketers that power those brands should prepare to be the next collateral damage. Here are five reasons why:

This is now the era of personalization non grata
Marketers have benefited from algorithms, particularly on Facebook, that serve people highly relevant content and ads. But one of Facebook’s methods of fixing its Trending stories is serving the same stories to everyone regardless of users’ individual interests. What if you don’t care about what Natalie Portman is wearing to award ceremonies? Too bad—everyone gets the same menu. Digital media is reverting back to broadcast analog methods.

Unscrupulous advertisers practically invented fake news
Every time an advertiser promoted a story like “four out of five people recommend Acme widgets” when the next six out of 10 preferred a competitor, they sow distrust. When publishers run fraudulent ads with images of President Obama or a star of Shark Tank supposedly hawking mortgages, people tune out.

When consumers begin to question the legitimacy of ads, the result is a depreciating effect for brands. From a practical perspective, you almost expect the picture associated with an ad to be click bait, meaning that legitimate efforts to connect with consumers who may actually be interested in your product go unnoticed.

Marketing feels out of place amid conversations about political and social issues 
Publishers, including social media platforms, could do far more to ensure brands don’t appear tone deaf. Publishers may simply dictate that every fifth or tenth post needs to be an ad, and it may not matter a great deal what the advertiser is peddling.

Brands wind up looking like the guilty parties here, even if publishers have far more control as to which ads run where, and whether ads run at all. More nuanced targeting may deliver fewer clicks at first, which will disappoint brand marketers, but each click will be worth more and will lead to longer-term trust between brands and consumers.

The definition of good behavior needs to shift
Brands are rewarded on social platforms for generating impressions and clicks, so they wind up focusing on those activities. They are forced to do whatever they can to drive engagement, even if that isn’t their primary business goal. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, recently shared a poll on Twitter asking when @ACLU would cross the million-follower threshold.

The ACLU’s mission is to protect civil liberties and not gain Twitter followers, but such polls are often effective in keeping brands top of mind; that ACLU poll delivered more than 27,000 votes. The downside is that when the primary goal becomes to drive clicks, it motivates bad actors to game the system, and that is how fake news has been able to spread.

The platforms themselves could suffer
Until 2015, people complained about seeing too many photos of babies and pets on Facebook. In 2016, people complained about too many political posts on Facebook and longed for the days of too many babies and pets. Now it’s common to see people reporting they are taking a hiatus from social media. The charged political topics—even those that one agrees with—deprive social media users of the simple pleasures of cheerful interactions with friends and family members.

Publishers, including social media platforms, could do far more to ensure brands don’t appear tone deaf.

Most people try to avoid conflict rather than spend more time seeped in it, and it’s worse still when people can’t even trust the media sources their peers are sharing.

Still, the content doesn’t have to be political to compel people to tune out. Seeing the same products, brands and industries repeated on your news feeds can be monotonous and uninspiring—as we’ve already learned from traditional advertising.

Social algorithms must evolve to balance relevancy with authenticity, or the platforms themselves will suffer. What could happen is that people will relegate social networks to specific use cases, such as by only following family updates on Facebook, news on Twitter, entertainment on Snapchat and professional updates on LinkedIn. That in turn will hurt the appeal of most of those platforms for brands.

Brands need to be vigilant, taking responsibility for what they can control, such as the authenticity and validity of their ads and pushing publishers to incentivize relevance over reach. There won’t be a massive, overnight shift. Facebook’s ad dollars will still continue enjoying positive momentum, and these trends will probably have no impact on Snapchat’s initial public offering.

But if marketers and publishers fall short at the behest of social platforms, consumers won’t care who’s to blame. By ignoring ads or blocking them, consumers will lump them and other forms of marketing, including the fake and fraudulent, together and even the best of brands will suffer.

David Berkowitz (@dberkowitz) is chief strategy officer at Sysomos.

This story first appeared in the April 3, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.