The Misinformation Epidemic is Funded by Brands we Trust Most
Misinformation is destabilizing our democracy and last week people who have become radicalized by it attempted a violent overthrow of the government and continue to plot terrorist acts against their fellow Americans. This did not happen in a vacuum, and it’s not solely due to irresponsible politicians . Corporate America has made the business of misinformation into a multi-billion dollar industry, sometimes due to their willful ignorance and other times with wide-eyed. In either case, it’s their advertising dollars that keep the purveyors of dangerous conspiracy theories flush with cash.
Several studies of misinformation on social networks have shown that lies are more likely to be shared, and spread faster than the truth — and in the digital marketing world that translates into ‘engagement’ and engagement means more advertising dollars. In one study from MIT, misinformation was 70% more likely to be shared than the truth. In economic terms, all things being equal no rational actor would invest a marketing dollar on the truth when the payoff from the lie is stratospherically higher. Of course, most companies aren’t making a conscious decision to support lies — they are relying on marketing automation algorithms from 3rd parties to place their advertisements ‘optimally’ and ‘objectively’ ensuring the highest return on investment from their marketing spend (Marketing ROI). Some would call this AI run amok, but the algorithms are doing exactly what they are intended to do, and will always execute this kind of directive more profitably than a human because they cannot second guess the ethical dilemma of perpetuating a lie over the profit objective they are programed to achieve. But this cannot be an excuse for the continued unconstrained dissemination of misinformation because the toll on society is too high, and the technologies that are perpetuating this epidemic CAN be modified to contain it. All it takes is for the economic incentives to change and advertisers could change that today. Truth in this country has been washed out by a sea of lies. Without truth we cannot have functioning democracy, and as long as lies remain more profitable than the truth our system of government is in jeopardy.
American corporations need to step up and demand that their advertising dollars are spent in ways that reflect their corporate values because by advertising they ARE funding the messages and opinions they appear beside. As consumers, we must start holding them accountable and assume that anywhere we see these brands advertised they ARE endorsing those opinions they appear with — because in fact they paid for you to see it. They will blame the internet and marketing automation platforms (who are also making a fortune on misinformation and the disintegration of Democracy), but it’s their marketing dollars that fund all of it. They control the purse strings, and they have the power to defund the lies.
In a research report out today from www.newsguardtech.com, over 1600 top brands ran advertisements on websites carrying election misinformation between October and November 2020 including some that one might not expect — including American Express, P&G, Disney, Harvard University, AARP and Sloan Kettering — all respected brands that you’d expect more from.