Truth in Content Marketing and Social Media—True, False, or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Exactly 28 years, 8 months, 3 days ago, a souped-up DeLorean DMC-12 carrying three intrepid travelers departed on an epic—yet nearly instantaneous—voyage across the quantum-folds of space and time. Today, you may recall, is the day when Marty McFly, Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown, and Marty's girlfriend Jennifer Parker arrived at the Hill Valley of the "future" as depicted in Back to the Future II, the second chapter of the classic trilogy. The image above depicts the control interface that Doc Brown—played by the inimitable Christopher Lloyd—mounted inside of the Delor…

Sorry, what?

B2tFFINAL2
B2tFFINAL2

You saw this same image last month? Twice last month? That's simply not possible. It's today, you see, when Marty is compelled to pose as his own son inside of Cafe 80s in order to prevent Griff Tannen from roping Marty Jr. into a robbery. Of course I'm sure about this. Photoshop fraud? Snopes article? Let me look at… GREAT SCOTT!

Dear reader, let me offer my sincerest apologies. It turns out that this image is indeed a hoax, and one that has been perpetuated over and over again for several years now. You've almost certainly seen it on your own Facebook news feed, likely captioned with "Awesome!" or "Can you believe it?" (The answer, of course, should be "not at all.")

You saw this same image last month? Twice last month? That's simply not possible. It's today, you see, when Marty is compelled to pose as his own son inside of Cafe 80s in order to prevent Griff Tannen from roping Marty Jr. into a robbery. Of course I'm sure about this. Photoshop fraud? Snopes article? Let me look at… GREAT SCOTT!

Dear reader, let me offer my sincerest apologies. It turns out that this image is indeed a hoax, and one that has been perpetuated over and over again for several years now. You've almost certainly seen it on your own Facebook news feed, likely captioned with "Awesome!" or "Can you believe it?" (The answer, of course, should be "not at all.")

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tumblr_lub770NXBk1qbvn8yo4_250

Similar fabrications from content spammers and Nigerian Princes are distributed through email chains and posted on social media channels every day. Thankfully, a number of websites—including Snopes and Hoax-Slayer—tirelessly debunk fraudulent viral stories. But the internet's rubbish generator is indefatigable, and no sooner is one hoax thoroughly discredited (turns out the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not slated for demolition in 2015) before another takes its place (no, an abandoned cruise ship full of cannibal rats is not floating off the coast of England—that's just the Isle of Wight).

Before I offer some analysis about what the entwined cottage industries of viral fabrication and viral fact-checking mean for content marketing and social media messaging, I want to provide some critical context by examining the history of fraudulent fictions and pernicious untruths. Although rumors are likely as old as antiquity—did you hear that one about Gilgamesh?—much of our understanding of their significance and dissemination patterns comes from the post-war era. The earliest such research from this period continues to provide telling insights about viral rumors and hoaxes.

TRUTH IN A TIME OF WAR

Emily Rosengren at the University of Michigan argues that the scholarly study of spurious political and military intelligence can be traced back to the Greek historian Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BCE. War rumors in particular became a popular focus of social psychology research following World War II, which had been accompanied by thousands of unsubstantiated reports about the war effort and "enemies within" circulated by word-of-mouth. The prevalence of this dangerous gossip spurred the government to undertake several projects that aimed to debunk false stories and accurately inform the general public about the war effort. One of the more prominent examples of this was the Boston Herald's "Rumor Clinic" column—a precursor of sorts to the syndicated "Straight Dope" newspaper column and more recent political fact-checking features.

The "Rumor Clinic" column was overseen by famed Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who used the results as the basis for his 1947 study (with Joseph Postman), Psychology of Rumor. The work's most important assertion was "the basic law of rumor,"  which declared that rumor strength (R) will vary with the importance of the subject to the individual concerned (i) times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at hand (a), or R ≈ i × a. More simply put: rumors
 spread
 when
 the underlying issue is 

significant 
to both speaker 
and 
listener 
and 
when the real facts are unknown or contested.

Another psychologist, Robert H. Knapp, categorized the rumors printed in the "Rumor Clinic" column and collected from other sources. Knapp believed that war conditions fostered rumors for two basic reasons: (a) facts become at once more precious and more scarce in a secretive, self-censoring environment, and (b) under these conditions, rumors fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and provide clandestine information. Knapp sorted rumors into three categories:

  • Pipe-dream rumors which express the wishes and hopes of their audience. During WWII these included "The Japanese do not have enough oil to last six months" and "There will be a revolution in Germany before summer."
  • Fear-based rumors derived from panic and lingering anxiety—"The entire Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor" or "Crab meat packed by the Japanese contains ground glass."
  • Wedge-driving rumors that sow social division and distrust—"The Catholics in America are trying to evade the draft." Such rumors effectively undermined interpersonal relations.

While Allport and Knapp's datasets reflected a very specific wartime environment characterized by censorship and paranoia, their core findings would seem to apply to any communication network, even—or perhaps especially—email and social media, which together have amplified the reach and speed-of-spread of fabricated news stories and other falsehoods. Recent academic analysis tends to treat online rumors as simply a digital version of their word-of-mouth predecessors rather than a different "type" or class of rumor altogether. This might give us pause, as it's easy to think of numerous social media examples that simply couldn't have existed in an earlier era (such as the Back to the Future "Marty Returns" template image above). But despite the change in format, many of the web's most viral rumors and urban legends reflect the core assumptions undergirding Allport's "basic law of rumor" and Knapp's rumor categories.

Consider three examples from Snopes' Hot 25 list of current urban legends and rumors:

  • A warning posted on Facebook imploring gasoline purchasers to press the "Clear" button after paying at the pump to avoid fraudulent charges appearing on their credit/debit car. Like Knapp's fear-based rumor examples, this one capitalizes on a common fear (credit card scams!) and fills a believed information gap ("You need to know this…"). People share it to be helpful as the issue is perceived to be important to their network of friends.
  • An alert that spread via email, social channels, and likely over the phone from your Uncle Carl that President Obama has ordered the removal of the words "In God We Trust" from all U.S. currency. This one is also clearly a fear-based rumor, but it should it also be considered a "wedge" rumor to the extent that it is serves to characterize the President (and liberals and secularists by extension) as an "Other"—someone inherently divergent from (and opposed to) American values and traditions. A viral image of a purported fourth-grade science quiz about "Dinosaurs: Genesis and the Gospel" from a South Carolina school uses the same framing to target Southerners and conservatives.
  • A shared Facebook post (see below) from actor Ryan Gosling which describes the tear-wrenching loss of his adopted child. This is clearly a pipe-dream: Ryan Gosling has never had an adopted child, and—as we all know!—he had already learned how to love unconditionally (and unrequitedly) while playing Noah in The Notebook.
gosling
gosling

THE TRUTH STRIKES BACK?

A very good Buzzfeed article makes the case that the widespread hoax and rumor industry—which largely operates in the shadows but surfaces occasionally in the form of The Daily Currant—has produced an equally sprawling but far more mainstream hoax debunking industry. The prime players here include Snopes, the internet institution started by husband and wife David and Barbara Mikkelson way back in 1995; Hoax-Slayer, a very well-done site has expanded from a popular Yahoo group; and VMyths, which specializes in computer security issues.

But we should also include the more recent political fact checking columns which judge the accuracy of public pronouncements from the White House, members of Congress, and assorted lobbyists and interest groups. These include The Tampa Bay Times'Politifact, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post’s“Fact Checker” blog. Like the Boston Herald's "Rumor Clinic" column, these outlets aim to flag misstatements and "educate" citizens by correcting the policy record.

Despite the omnipresence of these debunking outlets, fake news stories and unsourced email chains continue to proliferate—in part due to skepticism towards third parties who attempt to arbitrate the "truth." One web rumor suggests that Snopes receives its funding from George Soros and thus can't be trusted. More substantial criticisms come from press critics, who have long alleged that Politifact and other would-be political umpires are anything but neutral, and that one person's preferred political position in another's double Pinocchio.

Lincoln
Lincoln

Equally problematic is the public's simple indifference to accuracy. Several months ago I saw the Abraham Lincoln graphic embedded above on my Facebook news feed. I notified the poster that the quote did not come from Abraham Lincoln, but from the outspoken American religious leader Rev. William John Henry Boetcker.

"It's still good advice," the poster replied.

Other commenters agreed, and my attempted debunking was eventually crowded out by multiple "Hell yeah!" comments and appeals for constitutional government NOW. Nobody seemed to care that Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with the quote, because—I guess?—it seemed the sort of advice Honest Abe would have given.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE TRUTH AND CONTENT MARKETING

To summarize: Online hoaxes and fake news stories are more prevalent than ever, but so are fact checkers and hoax debunking outlets. What does this mean for truth in content marketing and how should content marketers best approach accuracy given this conundrum? (a) Act as of if anything goes and slap fake celebrity endorsements on all of your Facebook brand posts?, or (b) establish a rigorous double-blind peer review for every Tweet? The safe bet is obviously to trend closer to B and maintain a reputation for accuracy. Every fact claim within your vertical infographic, Facebook snackable, or policy white paper should be attributed to a reliable, non-Wikipedia source. This is especially true for curated content that includes external source of information. In short, don't be a victim of a viral debunking that leaves you and your client exposed.

Content marketers should also remember that the same qualities that Gordon Allport believed made certain rumors viral—importance of the subject and absence of hard evidence—can also serve to craft engaging social content. The best HuffPo and UpWorthy headlines effectively mimic the "You'll Never Believe What This Girl Did In The Pool!" format of so many viral hoaxes. Although this approach can be overdone, the underlying lesson is just that people like to learn (and share!) new, interesting facts about issues important to them. This doesn't mean you have make every Facebook post an alarming warning about keyboard germs or an enticing piece of celebrity gossip (like how Ryan Gosling loves with his whole heart), but you should remember that people share information when they feel like it will earn them points and credibility within their social circles.