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Mis & Disinformation: what brands need to know in 2021

by Harriet Kingaby - June, 2021

Will a virus made with monkey protein turn you into a monkey?

Are ‘lizard people’ in charge of the White House?

Do McDonalds burgers contain cow eyeballs?

No, but in a world of ‘fake news’, suspect recommendation algorithms, and lack of web governance, many think so. Disinformation and its cousin, misinformation, have become the hot topics of the early 20s. And their impacts are huge – 100s of thousands of people marched in Germany and London in summer last year, carrying QAnon banners to protest mask wearing. Anti-vaxxers threaten vaccine roll outs in many countries; while conspiracy theorists link doll manufacturers to pedophile rings. Not only this, but the troubling streak of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia through many of these theories is a huge red flag for society.

Lord Puttnam described us as living through a ‘pandemic of misinformation’ during a global pandemic, and the real world consequences are real.

Mis and disinformation are not just problems for lawmakers, or vaccine producers. They pose very real issues for us marketers too.

Take Wayfair, the furniture manufacturer hit by QAnon ‘child trafficking’ accusations surrounding furniture with women’s names. A fate also shared by Trolls.

Or AstraZeneca, hit with a conspiracy that the monkey proteins used to develop the virus would also turn recipients into monkeys, reportedly to give competitors an advantage. See also wind turbine manufacturers hit by health impact accusations.

Or how about the brands targeted by Stop Funding Hate and Sleeping Giants, who find their advertising funding hate speech and other forms of disinformation?

From inadvertently funding conspiracy theory websites, to QAnon pile-ons, and a never-ending list of hate and conspiracy terms to keep on top of – disinformation can feel like a marketers nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be that way – simple and practical steps can help to ensure you and your brand are wise to the techniques you’ll encounter, and prepared enough to avoid the worst.

Let’s start with the basics: what are Mis and Disinformation?

The first thing we need are clear, shared definitions of what dis and misinformation are. This helps us understand the problem and what we’re up against. 

According to the 4As whitepaper on the subject, the key difference between disinformation and misinformation is whether the creator or sharer intends to deceive. 

Disinformation is often produced by people or organisations who want to manipulate, skew, or change a narrative, while Misinformation is the kind of thing shared by people and organisations who don’t do it with the intention to deceive.

The key point here is that we’ve all accidentally shared misinformation – it’s why Twitter has introduced the ‘Do you Want to Read This First?’ button when you try to share a link you haven’t clicked on. 

Why is it such a problem?

Disinformation has been around as long as we have – you only have to look back at propaganda, fake UFO sightings, or celebrity magazines to find it in all its analog glory. Disinformation can come from many sources, for many reasons, from the political, to the commercial, to the downright malicious. We’ll cover this off later on in this article series.

‘Flying saucers’ found in Britain in 1967 revealed to be an elaborate hoax

However, in recent years, misleading content has been given a boost – literally – through social media recommendation algorithms and advertising revenue. Social media has given everyone a voice, and made it easier for anyone and everyone to product content, and earn money from it.

The problem is that it’s lucrative, effective in changing conversations, and easy to create. Lucrative because it can be monetised through advertising – high engagement rates mean that disinformation can pass as the kind of content marketers will pay good money to sit next to. Studies even suggest it can travel through the internet six times quicker than the truth. We need to remove it from our advertising spend and learn to be prepared for the attacks that may come our way. Luckily, resources such as The Conscious Advertising Network’s Misinformation manifesto and our new guides to disinformation for media planners and creative strategists, released this week with the IPA, are here to help us.

At Media Bounty we specialise in transparent media plans and integrated marketing solutions that are disinformation savvy. This may be a challenging new world to be a brand manager in, but if you need some guidance, drop us a line.