I confess: I am one degree of separation away from Vladimir Putin. Should the social media police fine me, require that I take a class and do community service, or revoke my CMO license?
Against the (alleged) election scandals, ruthless Russian social media bots, fake news, and shirtless Vladimir Putin memes flooding our news feeds regularly, I’d simply like to present a true story—one that involves politics, social media, international intrigue, and juicy anecdotes.
I’ll get to that story in a bit.
First, I want to address the elephant in the room: Since taking on my role last September as CMO of a social media software company with offices in Russia, a few people have asked, directly and indirectly: What’s up, Daniel? You’re doing social media… [whispered] in St. Petersburg!? What do you know about… [whispered] y’know? Can you tell us?”
Well, I know a little and yes, I’m spilling the beans and telling all!
Daniel? Glickman. Bond. James Bond?!
Fake news and the constant stream of conspiracy theories and propaganda on both sides of the political spectrum—on all sides, globally—has everyone questioning their own sanity. I wrote last month about losing my mind—in a good way—due to my new role as CMO of Animatron, my wild travel schedule, and my adapting to a new company and multi-national culture. But trust me, while my Putin story is an interesting one, I am no James Bond.
I’m a global executive. I work with a talented team of digitally and creatively savvy Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans. We are marketers, and no matter what anyone says about us, we work to help clients and consumers improve their lives.
I’m pretty much a regular guy: It’s February, and in a few days I’ll be wishing my amazing wife Amelia Happy Valentine’s Day. We’ll eat chocolate and try to arrange a date night before the Ides of March.
A True Tale of International Intrigue
If you want to really understand what’s going on with the Russian social media election hack (which is considered by experts to be one of the most masterfully executed covert affairs using social media), you must start in 2012, the year Facebook announced it would reduce the organic reach of pages to almost zero. Just like that, overnight, brands went from “Hoorah! Facebook is giving me a ton of free publicity,” to “I don’t exist on Facebook.”
This change meant that thousands of brands receiving free promotion on Facebook had to scramble to develop and implement new models for attaining visibility and attracting attention on this platform.
Fast forward to Facebook in 2016:
“The dominant social network had altered the information and persuasion environment of the election beyond recognition while taking a very big chunk of the estimated $1.4 billion worth of digital advertising purchased during the election. There were hundreds of millions of dollars of dark ads doing their work. Fake news all over the place. Macedonian teens campaigning for Trump. Ragingly partisan media infospheres serving up only the news you wanted to hear. Who could believe anything? What room was there for policy positions when all this stuff was eating up News Feed space? Who the hell knew what was going on?”
Source: Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, October 12, 2017
Years back, Facebook did what made sense to them—they did what makes sense to the majority of businesses—they made people pay for more exposure. They couldn’t have foreseen the enormity and power of the monster they would create.
The truth is that creating and spreading fake news was, still is, and probably always will be a practice common to many outlets, platforms, and nations—not just the usual political disrupters (i.e. Russia). Buzzfeed has, arguably, been the most successful commercial player in the fake news game. Its success is directly linked to Facebook’s 2012 algorithm change.
Take a look at this Russian manual, Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide. This book is designed for state security services as a kind of user’s manual for information warriors. The book declares that information weapons are invisible to the target state because they are not recognized as a conventional attack, leaving the attacking state free of any retaliation.
(I wish this manual was translated into English. I could use the pro tips.)
With or without this manual though, Russia, Buzzfeed, and countless fake news publishers have gotten away with generating sensationalized stories, click-bait, and misinformation. And just as the book for information warriors predicts: There doesn’t seem to be anyone willing or able to put an immediate or effective end to the assault.
Sure, since the election and its fallout, Facebook has made changes to its News Feed system in hopes of restoring faith in social media and its own moral integrity. But the jury is out as to whether these changes will have any effect—and even if they do, disinformation experts will find the next way to rig the system.
Friends, family and…fake news?
In the opening of this newsletter, I promised one true story—one only I could tell. A story of international intrigue that I might have guessed would be true. But still, what I’ve learned comes as a bit of a shock, because the actors involved were real people sitting across from me at the dinner table, in St. Petersburg, telling me directly that they had been interviewed by Russian government agencies to create headlines that would sell, no matter what words were attached to them.
I’m not naïve, and I’m not paranoid, but I do confess to checking under the tablecloth to make sure our table, full of social media wizards, wasn’t being bugged.
As for what happens next in the quest to rid the world of fake news and tall tales for spin and profit? Facebook announced last week that they are tweaking their algorithm once again. This time they plan to promote more local news in our feeds and to encourage conversations between friends and family. What exactly does this mean for marketers who want their content to go viral on Facebook? Conversation-starting content is the new king. A new game is afoot and everyone is scrambling to figure out its rules. Will our “new and improved” conversations become more civil? Can they, after the heated exchanges we’ve become used to? Who will be the next Buzzfeed, and what will their impact on the 2020 elections be?
We’ll see, won’t we?