Despite all the talk about fake news, social media manipulation is the real concern for brands

Despite all the talk about fake news, social media manipulation is the real concern for brands

Having fake news about your brand spread online is clearly a major concern, and one that many in the business of managing brand reputation are waking up to. But marketers, brand and PR professionals need to be extremely careful about placing too much importance on the ‘fake news’ aspect while overlooking a far, far bigger problem.

The issue I’m talking about is the way social media platforms can be manipulated to spread a story – any story, be that a false one or a very real one. A false story can be hugely damaging if taken seriously but it is also easier to spot and fact-check. What is far more difficult to identify is a true story or a campaign that has been amplified and framed in a certain way to create artificial outrage online.

Let’s say a genuinely true but negative story came out about your brand. In a world where social media platforms can’t be gamed, that article might register on some people’s radars and not on others. In the real world, where these games are played daily, it only takes one person with an agenda and a few hundred pounds to whip up an inauthentic Twitter storm and reach thousands of authentic users.

Twitter storm in a teacup?

That Twitter storm may blow its way into the corridors of power at your organisation, giving board-members and decision makers the impression of widespread grassroots support where little such sentiment actually exists. It may wind its way to industry commentators and influencers, who notice the sheer scale of the anger directed toward the company, and it may reach customers and investors too.

The problem here is that people can perceive a real issue to be far larger and more important than it actually is. People will also largely have no idea that a brand has been the victim of a coordinated, inauthentic attack and, more worryingly, neither does the company itself. And if they’re only focused on finding and rebutting fake news about themselves, they never will.

Is the threat real?

Brands will increasingly be put under huge amounts of pressure to respond to perceived mass social media outcries, and they’ll be under pressure to act quickly and in certain ways. To begin solving this challenge they first need to understand the nature of the true threat - that fake news isn’t the problem they should be focusing on, it’s the ease at which any narrative can be manipulated online by anyone with an agenda.

Once they understand this, they need ways of protecting themselves, being able to tell if what is said about them online is indeed authentic and represents the general public’s or their clients’ perception of them. We see the techniques used to manipulate social media every day – we know they can be identified, and we know they can be monitored.

Data should steer the fight back

This is hugely important for brands because it means they can begin to fight back. Whether the content is fake or real, getting accurate data on the way social media is being manipulated is the way to solve the problem. It gives brands the opportunity to mitigate the effects of an attack, and gives them the context and data to make better informed decisions on how they should respond.