The internet has become a battleground where various voices, groups, and actors compete to spread their ideologies and control narratives. These narratives have far-reaching effects on our society. For businesses, it’s crucial to discern who makes up these factions, and to understand the what, why, and how these factions are disseminating information, as it can reach your audience and affect the perception of your industry and brand.
If inauthentic activity online is impacting your brand, you must have critical (and accurate) information at hand to triage quickly, to minimize any potential damage. In this article, we break down how to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic information online.
Why Authenticity Matters
The Trust Vacuum
The COVID-19 pandemic, political instability, and economic turmoil have created opportunities for misinformation and disinformation to run rampant, create confusion, and erode trust. Historically, people turn to the government or news media to guide them through uncertainty. However, the last few years have created a shift in that trust. According to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, only 40% of people trust the U.S. government and 53% look to news media to deliver trusth-worthy information.
Without a trusted leadership to look to, people are scrambling to get reliable information and it shows…trust across various types of information sources are at record lows:
An Opportunity for Brands… and Factions
Today, “Business” ranks as the most trusted institution, and is seen as more competent than the government, as ethical as NGOs, and responsible for filling in the void left by the news media.
This increased level of relative trust has given brands a unique opportunity. 53% of respondents want brands to be a source of information.
However, this opportunity can be a double-edged sword. Brands stepping in to fill the information void face new breeds of social media tactics and unpredictable forces online. Adversarial factions, fringe networks, niche interest groups, or bad faith actors are using inauthentic methods to control narratives that spread across the web and shape public perception.
If you can’t tell whether something is authentic or not, your team is going to continue to get surprised by new incidents and attempts to attack your brand values, hijack your spokespeople, provoke your employees, and berate your executives.
What’s Authentic and What’s Not?
Inauthentic Information is Shaping Public Opinion
Our information ecosystem makes it difficult for people to verify the authenticity of the content that they’re consuming online. Low-quality information is making its way into the minds and hearts of your audience, and either slowly or very suddenly tearing down your customer relationships and brand reputation.
It is essential that brands are able to predict, track, and quickly make decisions about how to respond to (and when not to!) narratives that are directly and indirectly related to them. Not being able to quickly and effectively gather data on information spreaders, and narratives that could impact your brand, can have major consequences on perception, public relations, valuation, stock price, operations, etc..
What Makes a Narrative Authentic?
In a nutshell, authenticity asks: is this narrative representative of the community it says it’s representative of? Inauthenticity involves tactics that enable a small group to exert disproportionate influence to push their narrative online and pass it off as public opinion.
How Do You Measure Authenticity?
Traditional social analytics tools use metrics that can be misleading because they can be manipulated by motivated factions. Beyond metrics, most analytics tools can’t see what is happening on fringe and hard-to-see spaces online, so they focus on what is already trending in mainstream platforms. That leaves a huge blindspot for communications and marketing teams.
Without the right intelligence, your team may end up falling into the trap of escalating and amplifying inauthentic information. On the other hand, identifying authentic narratives can focus your team on coalition building and values-led communications strategies that help restore trust in our information ecosystem.
How Can You Tell if Something is Authentic Online?
It’s Not About “fake news.”
It’s not enough to know if something is true or false, because your audience can still perceive a false narrative as true. Authenticity is about the means involved in spreading the information. Did something get shared organically or was it artificially amplified?
It’s Not About Volume
It only takes a faction engaging with 1% of a conversation online to put them in control of the narrative. When the voice of a small group is amplified, it can seem as though it’s the will of the public, and in some cases (if left unchecked), can become the will of the public. Authenticity is about identifying who is behind a narrative, the tactics they use to amplify their message, how influential they are online, and; therefore, how likely it is for their POV to become public consensus.
When #BoycottMulan started trending online, Yonder found the narrative to be inauthentic as factions associated with Chinese Media were amplifying the hashtag with bots and newly-created accounts online.
It’s Not About Sentiment
What constitutes a crisis? 10,000 accounts saying they love your product or 10,000 accounts saying they’re going to boycott your store? HINT: Both, potentially. Authenticity is about detecting when low-quality accounts (e.g. bots, singly-use, newly-created) are used to artificially amplify a conversation online — no matter the sentiment.
When Taylor Swift surprised fans with a new album, Folklore, the Swifties faction immediately activated, tweeting with the hashtag #buycardigan to move the album to the top of the charts. The hashtag also helped promote cardigan sales on the artists’ site. The very passionate faction drove 3.3% of conversations around the album and the conversation ticked slightly toward inauthenticity, indicating manipulation via hashtags, bot retweeting, and other tactics.
It’s Not About Engagement
Likes, clicks, shares, and retweets, can be misleading at best, manipulated at worst. A retweet by a highly-influential account should be weighed differently than one by a less influential account. And sometimes, factions will resort to brigading in order to get influential accounts to engage with their content and amplify it online. Authenticity means analyzing influence networks and faction tactics behind a narrative spreading online.
It’s Not About What’s Trending
A narrative trending on Twitter may be displaying authentic engagement there, but may have entered the mainstream platform via inauthentic means. Most tools are not able to collect from fringe networks like 4chan, Parler or MeWe but this is often where factions coordinate to workshop their messaging and then take that message into the mainstream. Authenticity means understanding where a narrative originates.
The Way Forward for Brands?
Traditional social analytics tools can’t assess the authenticity of a narrative or comb through the fringe internet to find narratives in the first place. Where does that leave brands that are in the middle of a crisis, have experienced one recently, or are trying to stay proactive?
Yonder uses AI and machine learning to find fingerprints of authenticity across narratives online, even in the hard-to-see corners of the internet. Brands use this intelligence to get out in front of narratives and make confident decisions around whether they should ignore, monitor, or escalate a narrative or incident playing out online.
Brands interested in answering the call to restore trust in our information ecosystem will need to be able to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic narratives online — in order to perpetuate authenticity and curtail the spread and influence of inauthentic information, factions, and tactics.
Ultimately, these will be the brands that stick around.