Since the first sandwich boards were hung, the first flyers distributed, one thing about marketing has remained true: growth of, and reach to, desired audiences = business equity. Today, whether it is the placement of earned media to establish authority and trust, strategies and investments to reach audiences on social media, or ongoing efforts to manage the brand profile in search advertising, brands depend on some form of third-party media distribution.
Every organization seeks to communicate across the digital platforms of tech companies like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram (Meta), Twitter and LinkedIn, while exploring and leveraging controversial new ones like TikTok. Press officers seek to secure the placement of articles, Op-Eds, and brand mentions in enviable media outlets. Digital officers allocate budgets and hire agencies to manage brand profiles in search.
Brands rely on distribution of their content through traditional news and media organizations and social media companies that can meet an important value proposition: connecting people to compelling and trustworthy content. But through a developing revolution in media, the future will hold new complexities for any company or nonprofit brand seeking to grow online communities and earn their trust.
Increasingly, these functions of marketing and communications will be compromised by a confusing climate of unmoderated propaganda. No matter how small or large, every organization will be affected by shifts in the current media landscape, because the consumer media environment is transforming quickly, and radically. Content creation is now fully democratized. Every individual is a legitimate publisher – a purveyor of opinions and ideas – and it takes only a little ingenuity and a modest budget to grow social audiences. The bar to becoming a thought-leader has never been lower.
Through interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Post, it was reported that Elon Musk told prospective investors that he planned to eliminate nearly 75 percent of Twitter’s workforce, leaving a skeleton staff of just over 2,000 – paring the payroll by $800 million by the end of 2023. According to Edwin Chen, a data scientist formerly in charge of Twitter’s spam and health metrics, the cuts Musk proposed were “unimaginable” and would put Twitter’s users at risk of hacks and exposure to offensive material such as child pornography.
After finalizing his takeover and ousting senior leadership, Musk, a self-declared “free speech absolutist,” declared on Friday that he would be forming a new “content moderation council” that would bring together “diverse views” on the issue. But almost immediately after the takeover was made official, an antisemitic campaign appeared on Twitter after an anonymous 4chan user posted instructions for sharing antisemitic content.
The news about Twitter has been supplemented with emerging reports that Kanye West has agreed to buy Parler, the alternative social media platform favored by conservatives. Plans for the acquisition come after West, who has legally changed his name to Ye, had his account suspended temporarily by Twitter after an antisemitic tweet. Ye’s account was reactivated during the transition of ownership.
TikTok may have stolen the hearts and minds of Gen Z – and fast-growing segments of the U.S. population beyond that – but as reported by Bloomberg and other news organizations last month, the Justice Department is still assessing the impact to national security for the Chinese-owned, video-sharing platform. The Biden administration has been working with TikTok to secure a deal that would allow the company to continue operating in the U.S.
In a recent article in The New York Times, more and more young people have been turning to TikTok to use its powerful algorithm as a search engine. While Google remains the world’s dominant search engine, consumers are now turning to Amazon to search for products, Instagram to stay updated on trends, and Snapchat’s Snap Maps to find local businesses. A concerning article in Mashable recently revealed that, according to a new study, a fact-checking organization found misinformation in almost 20 percent of the videos manifested by TikTok’s search engine. Even more disturbing are reports that teens are increasingly turning to TikTok to self-diagnose their mental health conditions.
In a recent essay reprinted in Scientific American, social media experts graded social platforms on their ability to handle misinformation related to the 2022 midterm elections, giving TikTok a “D.” When neutral phrases were used as search terms, for example “climate change,” TikTok’s search bar suggested more phrases that countered the information, for example “climate change debunked” or “climate change doesn’t exist.”
Even conventional news media brands are being challenged by startups that work to establish a unique value proposition. The news website, Semafor.com, aims to rethink traditional journalism by separating the publisher’s analysis from the news. TheConversation.com claims to be an independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. As the news media environment continues to fragment, publicists will be charged with understanding and navigating an increasingly confusing media climate and making the right choices on behalf of their clients’ brands.
Alternative Partisan Media
The New York Times recently described the problem with alternative social media and content from influencers as a type of information that metastasizes across additional media channels to promote false and misleading information about public policies, politics, and social issues. The article cited an example in which a limited audience of 8,000 shared a post on Truth Social, published by former President Donald J. Trump, which proceeded to pulse through the public consciousness as it jumped to other digital platforms, podcasts, talk radio and television.
According to the article, “at least 69 million people have joined platforms, like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, that advertise themselves as conservative alternatives to Big Tech, according to statements by the companies.”
Despite years of warnings and work by media companies to control misinformation, the genie would now seem to be out of its bottle. The rampant growth of political opinion – formed through misleading facts and data – is more widespread than ever. As we seek ways to mitigate the challenges in the media landscape, there is the issue of the First Amendment to consider, but that freedom to speak and publish freely has met a new era of concerns now that technology has provided such a dramatically different landscape, one currently infused with international interference. Enemies of the U.S. – both internal and external – have demonstrated the ability to influence public opinion, control our national discussion and direct the outcome of elections.
Legislation proposed by congressional leaders, including new policies to manage digital content, will surely be forthcoming and directed specifically at tech companies, but those plans will also meet a rigorous debate and legal challenges.
Establishing trust has long been the holy grail for many advertisers and nonprofit organizations who seek to fundraise, even as meaningful connections to desired audiences has been increasingly elusive. In the last 20 years, advances in technology and the proliferation of consumer media products – paired with the broad accessibility to self-publish and promote content – has set the stage for a future rife with disinformation, misinformation and a confusing labyrinth of disparate opinions. Without intervention and new policies or regulations, we can anticipate dire and troubling storms ahead. Intergovernmental election interference, political propaganda and agendas promoting extreme views will continue to support a dissonant climate of ideas lacking expert-led, research-based advisories for the public.
As the world faces a deepening set of interrelated crises of our planet and public health, we desperately need a consensus of public opinion through reputable, trusted sources for our information and news. For organizations working to promote responsible content, the public trust they require will be fleeting and more difficult to earn, requiring innovations to the way we successfully deliver these important communications.