Are ‘Alternative Facts’ Affecting Our Ability to Interpret History?

Just the facts at BosparIt is said that “those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.”

But what happens when there is no agreement on what constitutes “true” history at a time when the attorney for the President of the United States declares that “truth is not truth?”

Furthermore, what are the implications when legitimate journalism is called into question, disseminators of “alternative facts” are given equal footing with fact-checkers, and our cultural ability to separate fact from fabrication is blurred?

Bospar recently worked with Propeller Insights on a consumer survey that explored these questions. The results were chilling.

‘Just the facts, ma’am!’

While ironically inaccurately attributed to Detective Joe Friday of the 1950s hit TV show Dragnet, the phrase “Just the facts, ma’am!” became ingrained in popular culture for decades. If only this were the case today.

The survey found, among other things, that 59 percent of Republicans feel media propaganda is causing inaccuracies in our school system. Even more disturbing is this: more Republicans trust President Trump for “the facts” than trust academics or school teachers.

On the other side of the aisle, more Democrats trust movies and documentaries than trust academics or school teachers.

Take a look at the following charts. Democrats are in deep purple; Republican, in light blue; Independents, in gold; and “other” is in light purple.

How accurate, if at all, do you think your local school system’s history classes are?

History class facts accuracy

 

Which of the following, if any, do you think are factors causing our school systems to teach inaccuracies? Please select all that apply.

School system facts

 

Which of the following, if any, do you most trust to give you the facts? Please select all that apply.

Trust in facts

 

This was a statistically valid sampling of U.S. citizens. Party affiliation is clearly a differentiator when it comes to the issue of whose facts you can trust and the degree to which they can be trusted. The lack of trust in anyone/anything is a clear present and future danger. The low regard for all categories of information resources depicted in the last chart amplifies the challenges with reaching agreement on a common set of shared values being taught going forward.

The real challenge is that when the sources used as the foundation for validation are themselves questioned, the task of finding common ground becomes that much more difficult. The denial of anthropogenic climate change and denial of science in general is an example of the difficulties modern Americans are having discerning fact from fiction.

To paraphrase an old saying: trust is hard to earn, easy to squander and extremely difficult to regain. Now, to raise each of these bars, but in particular increasing trustworthiness in our educational institutions and the legitimate press, needs to be a priority.

Knowledge really is power, and an informed citizenry can change the arc of history.

Fake News: When No News is ‘Good’ News

Fake news advice from BosparA quick browse on the internet reveals that some pretty surprising things are happening around the world: vaccines are killing babies and giving dogs autism, Dubai has become a hotspot for UFO sightings, and a cemetery in Ohio is exhuming buried Confederate soldiers and dumping them in a nearby lake.

Wait, what? A cemetery is dumping bodies in a lake?

No. Of course it’s not.

All of these headlines are part of the plight that 21st century Americans have come to know as “fake news.” In case you’ve been off of social media for the last two years, fake news is a particular brand of clickbait that the New York Times defined as any “made-up story with an intention to deceive, often geared towards getting clicks.”

Luckily, Americans are armed with the sturdy logic and critical thinking skills necessary to navigate through this morass of fake news, right? Wrong.

Fake news can count among its successes of the past year the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop, that Democrats tried to impose Islamic law in Florida and, arguably, the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States, who is himself guilty many times over of circulating fake news—or reporting fake facts from fake news articles—on his Twitter feed. He has also, through brilliance or blunder, managed to co-opt the term to refer to any news article he disagrees with, adding to the public’s general befuddlement.

As Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, notes in the New York Times article cited above, fake news sites have not only been incredibly successful at duping people into believing their tall tales, but “the wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things.”

Bospar’s recent Fake News Study confirmed this assessment. Fielded by Propeller Insights to over 1,000 American adults, the study looked at the extent to which Americans understand “fake news” and how they determine what news sources are trustworthy.

The study found that while just about three-fourths (74 percent) of the American population understand what fake news is, 59 percent also admit to having read and believed a news story only to find out later that it was “fake news.”

Meanwhile, 57 percent of Americans join POTUS in believing that fake news is misinformation deliberately created by mainstream news sites like CNN and MSNBC—a position held by many more Republicans (74 percent) than Democrats (46 percent)—and 19 percent of Americans think any negative coverage of President Trump is fake news, while 15 percent believe any positive coverage of President Trump is fake.

Indeed, politics play a key role in the conversation: when asked how they evaluate whether or not an article is “fake news,” 36 percent of Americans said it had to do with the political views of the source. Other ways that Americans determine whether or not an article is fake news include checking the URL for a weird domain name (34 percent) and Googling the name of the journalist (28 percent). Only 1 in 5 (22 percent) consult fact-checking sites like Snopes.com.

Americans are also reading very different news sources based on their political party affiliations.

While 62 percent of Democrats consider CNN a trustworthy news source, only 22 percent of Republicans do; 57 percent of Democrats consider the New York Times to be a trustworthy news source, but only 20 percent of Republicans do; and 40 percent of Democrats think MSNBC is a trustworthy news source, but only 12 percent of Republicans do. Meanwhile, 53 percent of Republicans think Fox News is trustworthy, but only 29 percent of Democrats do.

There is likewise a split when it comes to which political commentators Americans think are trustworthy:

Republicans Democrats
Sean Hannity 24 percent 4 percent
Rush Limbaugh 24 percent 2 percent
Stephen Colbert 4 percent 17 percent
Trevor Noah 5 percent 13 percent
Seth Meyers 3 percent 11 percent

But perhaps the most worrying finding of the study is that 21 percent of Republicans consider Donald Trump’s Twitter feed to be a trustworthy news source. Only 4 percent of Democrats agree.

Another troubling finding: 1 in 5 Americans (20 percent) don’t think any news sources are trustworthy.

Regardless of how Americans interpret the threat of “fake news,” they mostly agree that there is one. Half (49 percent) say if fake news is allowed to continue at current levels, trust in mainstream media will continue to erode. They also worry about the erosion or disappearance of democracy (40 percent), terrorist incidents (40 percent) and war (36 percent).

In addition, Democrats worry that “fake news” will result in the re-election of President Trump (41 percent), while Republicans worry that it will result in his impeachment (27 percent).

What is being done to neutralize the threat? Facebook continues to roll out features aimed at helping people to identify untrustworthy news sources, but many feel like it is too little too late.

“Ultimately, it’s up to us to be smart about what we read, check our sources, and, above all else, be careful what we share on social media,” said Lynch.

When No News Is Good News

News ideas from BosparIt gives you the opportunity to be creative.

There’s no study out there to prove this, but, based on experience, I’m going to guess that 98 percent of marketers and publicists face this common problem when trying to get their client coverage: there is no news.

Journalists are bombarded with press releases and pitches every day from companies which just aren’t doing anything newsworthy. These pitches lack a “why now”—they’re simply telling the journalist about a new product or service. And unfortunately, nobody—especially the journalist on the receiving end—cares.

Maybe your company has a cool platform for getting organized and being more productive. Join the ranks—a million other companies do that. Or perhaps your tech startup just made a killer new executive hire. You believe that, in 10 years, he’ll be the next Mark Cuban or Elon Musk, but unless he is actually and literally Mark Cuban or Elon Musk, it’s just not news that anybody will care about.

Now that I’ve crushed your hopes and dreams, here’s the silver lining: sometimes having no news is good news, because it gives you the opportunity to get creative. If you represent a company that makes a good product, whatever it is, and the PR team and you have a brain, you can still make magic happen.

How, you ask? Here are a few ideas:

Show a fresh perspective

OK, so maybe your company isn’t doing anything newsworthy, but your CEO is absolutely crushing it. Is there anything special or unique about him or her that you can leverage?

For example, one of my clients is a serial entrepreneur with several successful startups under his belt. His companies may not have the name recognition of Paypal or Hootsuite, but they are solid, multi-million dollar companies. In my chats with him, it came up that he is a former Marine and believes that most startups fail due to the CEO’s inability to think operationally–the way you do in the military.

Given this country’s love of the military and the fact that entrepreneurial news sites are always looking for a fresh perspective about how to lead better, I turned his military background into a pitch, which landed my client an interview with Inc. and this story: “The Military Has Created a Hotbed of Entrepreneurial Minds.”

I find that getting to know my clients on a personal level gives me an endless supply of creative pitch ideas. So, if you’re in a news desert, trawl for interesting personal angles.

Take a new look at an old product

José Olé has been making taquitos for decades; you probably remember eating them as a kid. For the Super Bowl this year, the brand took a hint from BuzzFeed’s popular Tasty videos and created their own recipe videos where they used their product in more elaborate game-day dishes. There was no “news” per se—just a new take on an old product at a relevant time.

Looking ahead will serve you well in the execution of this tactic. Map out the year and note what relevant events are happening, then take a look at your brand and figure out how you can build a story that is both timely and fresh.

Say you represent a tech company. Given that Mother’s Day is in May and “women in tech” is a hot topic, you might think about making a video of your top tech executives talking about the biggest tech lesson they learned from their mothers. Then create a pitch and link to the video.

Sell the feel-goods

In the absence of news, another avenue to explore is the feel-good angle.

For example, there’s a company called Figs that makes scrubs for nurses that essentially make their butts look better. That’s cool but not newsworthy in and of itself. What is newsworthy is the company’s “Threads for Threads” program: for every pair of scrubs purchased, a pair is donated to doctors who don’t have access to clean scrubs (typically those working abroad). By aligning themselves to a greater story about brands doing good, Figs has been featured in Forbes, Fox, WSJ and a slew of other major publications.

You might encourage your client or company to weave charity into their business model to increase opportunities for these kinds of stories. If you’re going to go this route, don’t half-ass it by running a marketing campaign and throwing the charity in as an afterthought. Create a meaningful partnership with a charity that aligns with your business and allows for impactful human stories.

This article first appeared in Adweek.