Advertising on the Misinformation Superhighway

4 minute read

13 March 2020

By Insights Team

Innovation Reporter, Upstart

In the X-Files, agents Scully and Mulder disagreed over whether "the truth was out there". In today's advertising-polluted, clickbait-driven world, the truth may well be out there, but companies need new sets of tools - and new values - to help find it, and to make better decisions.


Truth matters more than ever.

In today’s digital age, misinformation makes its way around the planet at lightning speed, before the truth has chance to get its running shoes on. 

2020’s Coronavirus epidemic was regarded by the World Health Organisation as the first “Infodemic” with misinformation sowing doubt and mistrust among internet users. Among the scapegoats for the virus were other countries, ingredients in our foods and 5G connectivity, as humans bent - or simply ignored - science to fit their own world view. Meanwhile, China’s desire to suppress the truth in the form of silencing an early alarm by a Wuhan Doctor is regarded as setting back efforts to contain the spread.

The production of fake news hit an industrial level in a sleepy town in Macedonia where dozens of website operators were discovered churning out bogus stories in “click for cash” schemes in the run-up to the last US Presidential election.  Much of the misinformation was loosely based on real events, but written in a way to provoke fear and provide a skewed version of the truth which played into the hands of people’s prejudices.

We are living in the age of the misinformation superhighway

So What?

Audience-hungry social media, click-hungry advertising-funded sites and unregulated narrowcasting / publishing are among the reasons for this growth, as Tim Urban in his insightful blog WaitButWhy identifies. 

There's a related, parallel problem going on in business information.

Business users are normally more level-headed than the population at large. Yet the problem of establishing the truth, or finding good factual information on which to base a strategy, is increasingly challenging.

With infinite budget for authoritative reports, and a well-funded and experienced insights team it’s still possible to drill down and get truthful insight. However, most business users we speak to are time-poor and cash poor.  Strategy and insight teams have been easy targets for cost-cutting in corporates, while high-growth companies find it difficult to recruit, retain and integrate the skills needed into their businesses.  

Across the spectrum there are three key problems that business users need to address when finding information:

  • Volume - information overload, or “filter failure” is a common source of frustration as media channels proliferate.
  • Quality - a healthy proportion of audience are willing to pay for good quality business information. However, the advertiser-funded business models of many of today's fast-moving information sources mean that speed of publishing will inevitably win over quality, as clicks take priority over accuracy.
  • Authority - the rise of “content marketing” as part of the marketing mix means that it’s never been easier for supposedly authoritative content to masquerade as thinly-veiled marketing. 

We've previously blogged about the need for speed and why it's important to get moving when responding to disruption. Ironically, there is enough information out there to help your business build a compelling rationale fast. But the speed must come with a good and accurate set of filters. 


So Now What?

No one would ever advocate returning to pre-Internet days, where business information was scarce, expensive and highly-controlled.

At the same time, as we move into the third decade of the 21st century, businesses are facing a very different set of challenges. 

Here are three things we recommend which any business can do, irrespective of size or stage of development:

Reduce and Filter.  Avoid business FOMO (fear of missing out) by unsubscribing from as many regular news feeds as possible (Tip: automating emails to route information based updates into one folder can spare you from cognitive overload, or at the very least enable you to deal with the information when you need it).

Collaborate.  One of the best ways of filtering and qualifying good quality information at speed is to do that in small, informed groups. Collaborative tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams can help decision-makers quickly share the burden of assessing good content.

Evaluate.  Cast a critical eye over the business model of each and every source you rely on. Are they good quality, paid for information sources, or advertiser driven content far more likely to hijack your time and eat into your business day?

The internet has revolutionised the way in which we share and consume information. The truth may be out there, but as the entire planet gets connected, it becomes even harder to hear its voice.

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