I was a big Trekkie growing up (Picard is better than Kirk, any other opinion is preposterous). The Star Trek canon featured a mirror universe, a twisted version of the primary universe where our heroes’ evil twins resided, and evil Spock sported a beard.
As a content marketer, I’ve been staring evil me right in his fetching beard these past months—“evil me” being the snake oil merchants of #FakeNews. We are starting to see the full picture of Russia’s intervention in America’s last presidential election. One Buzzfeed analysis found that viral fake news stories—or as I prefer to call them, lies—generated more total engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
And let’s be clear why this propaganda machine is content marketing’s evil twin: these campaigns were all, effectively, content marketing strategy. The value proposition we offer our clients through content marketing is telling the right story, to the right audience, at the right time. That philosophy would be familiar to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, who served 3,000 ads (!) to 126 million people (!!!) in the lead-up to the 2016 vote. One story claiming that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump hit nearly one million impressions alone.
So, Evil Spock’s got a beard and an ad budget.
This onslaught comes in an era of crisis for mainstream media. Newsrooms are shrinking while the last journalists standing are experiencing enormous pressures for their time and attention. As GCI Canada President Joe Peters has pointed out, this negative trend is tempered by the fact that the continued credibility of mainstream media makes them more influential than ever—and recent survey data shows that Canadians now trust journalists more than they have in a long time.
But the problem isn’t media’s power—the problem is how many pens it has left. Fewer journalists means fewer stories told and investigated.
Enter content marketing’s good guys. Whether sponsored content in traditional media, digital publications, thought leadership, simple Facebook ads, or everything else in between, content marketers now occupy a larger share of the information ecosystem than we ever have before. And as Uncle Ben would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.” What can we do as content marketers to play a positive role in democracy—creating a more informed citizenry, and a richer public conversation? Here are my three recommendations.
First: let’s do more to connect experts with audiences.
My proudest moments as a content marketer happen when I can profile a Certified Smart Person™—a credible and educated thought leader who would otherwise struggle to find voice in a public forum. One of the joys of content marketing is trying to put together information and audiences like puzzle pieces—helping people with certain interests hear ideas that will interest them. At its best, content marketing makes that connection happen. This approach benefits clients immensely. Real expertise, after all, speaks confidently for itself.
Second: let’s do more to tackle bad information head-on.
Different clients have different appetites for proactive response. Some would rather keep their heads down and let falsehoods float by. Others prefer to aggressively call out lies wherever they appear. Obviously, everything should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But we can no longer afford the luxury of assuming fake news will simply disappear into the Internet’s ethers. We should make a habit of calling out fake news wherever it appears—and clients shouldn’t be afraid to fight content with content, and get the facts out fast.
Third: let’s tell more of the stories that traditional media used to tell.
Journalists, by far, remain the information ecosystem’s most credible storytellers. But they are a shrinking share of the storytellers, while content marketers are an increasingly larger share. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for journalistic integrity in our work, however. We will never be as credible as the media—our clients are not disinterested actors, after all. But we can endeavor to strive for journalistic standards: in truthfulness, accuracy, fairness, public accountability and more. It will allow us to tell stories that benefit the public conversation.
I’ll end on this note: content marketers can’t stick our heads in the sand. We must be part of the solution. This is our evil twin, after all—fake news (particularly fake news weaponized through amplification) is a bastardization of our own discipline. We fight it by telling the truth, supporting real journalism, and adding positive information to the public conversation. Let’s send bearded Spock back to the mirror universe.