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Who do you trust? Who do you know? Who do you really, really know? Most of us have been baffled over the past months with how colleagues, clients, friends, even loved ones turned out to be way different that we thought they were. It starts small. A little like on a controversial post. A little share of a doubtful message. A snarky remark in a comment. Before you knew what happened, they turned into the living death. Spreaders of fake news and conspiracy theories. Believers of global, Illuminati lead machinations: massive election fraud. Child eating politicians. The Great Reset. Rockefeller sponsored massive virus induced genocide. Bill Gates propelled vaccination attempts to inject us with bio-bots hidden in vaccines… 5G controlled humanity.

Smartly Eroding Trust

While mankind was facing a global pandemic with about all computer power and science at its disposal,  an old and sneaky enemy re-emerged from the abyss of forgottenness: dis-information. Fake News. A powerful and underestimated threat that is attacking the very foundations of civil and moral  society. Carefully planted, media propelled, peer-shared, logarithm empowered disinformation, fake news and YouTube endorsed conspiracy theories and Q fabrications are spreading like wildfire and are slowly but surely eroding public trust in civic and scientific institutions on all levels. The ones wielding these doubtful -and arguably wrong- info believe themselves to be intellectual superior, better informed, most critical thinkers. The label the rest of us “sleepers”, “sheep” or “sheeple”.

Echo-chambering towards the void

John Sixpack and Karen Doe believe more eagerly a cheaply edited and poorly glued together online video rant from a nitwit with a mission, than seasoned scientists, doctors, historians and academics. Experts are having the uttermost difficulty to maintain even an illusion of a big part of the public’s faith. The battering from social media proclaimed “experts”, dreamers and contrarian thinkers is multiplied and boosted by the spiralling power of the echo-chambers . The Quest against fake-news is a major topic at this edition of SXSW. How does it work? Why does it happen? How can it be stopped? Should it? Where does freedom of speech end? How can journalists, media, influencers -at all levels- embark on the effort to maintain and rebuild the public’s trust and fortify the pillars of society in the face of this treacherous threat.

Educate, educate, educate

At SXSW EDU debates were heated on how students should/could be teached to spot misinformation and, more importantly, how to understand the agogic, neuro-scientific and demagogic forces behind it. The National Association for Media Literacy Education wants to bring the challenges of teaching about misinformation in and out of the classroom.  Fact-checkers are explaining how Fake News can be spotted, how things are checked. I had a chat with workplace experts (yes, that is a job) how Fake News can ruin the workplace in the blink of an eye, and can rotten a company culture to the bone. I had a beer with an ethical teacher congratulating us, Belgians, on the great international example of “Lead Stories », the innovative fact checking website at the intersection of big data and journalism created by Maarten Schenk: “Just Because It’s Trending Doesn’t Mean It’s True.” Roger that Maarten!

Media literacy is the key

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the nonprofit National Association of Media Literacy Education, explained that the value of teaching students how to spot and tackle misinformation, should be more than a class to teach. It should be installing a skill set that can be applied in any subject, on any topic, always, everywhere. “For us, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication,” Ciulla Lipkin said. It generates the capacity to critical thinking. A trained mind is more difficult to influence, more robust to disinformation attacks.  Fair question is: who is qualified (read “clean” and “neutral”) enough to train? And, more importantly, what is disinformation, and does it/does it not have a reason/a right to be?

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin pointed out that the growing trend of black-or-whitening complex realities does not help. “One of the struggles with disinformation and fake news is that it puts information way too often in two camps: right, or wrong, fact or fiction. In reality, most often it is more complicated than that. The truth is a grey area….”

Truth over profit?

There is a lot of finger pointing as well: towards journalists, who often give equal airtime to peer-reviewed experts and shady charlatans, and as such credibilize the latter. Towards media who “cite” more and more, and tend to fact-check less and are losing the art of reporting topics in a clear perspective. Towards the GAFAM, nicely rebranded “G-Mafia” by Amy Webb, because their powerful logarithms end up filtering all contrarian messages out of one’s timeline. Towards the advertising industry, for keeping on sponsoring the very dynamics that spread fake news. Towards brands, for way too often lacking the guts and the balls to withdraw their billions from shady news and entertainment platforms. Towards the entire communications industry, for not self-regulating. Towards politicians, for not enforcing fact-checking by law. Towards companies, for not investing enough in clear and interactive push-pull communication.

Deep-fake for good

A session on how government, academia and industry are using deep-fakes and similar applications for good caught my attention. It froze every hair on my back. A session on how several “groundbreaking positive-use cases have emerged where operatives use deep-fake and fake news tech to protect privacy, enhance accessibility and even inspire justice” just beggars believe. For crying out loud: you cannot fight bad with bad. You fight it with good. The “I use my deep-fake to counter your evil intentions and fake news” makes me think on how James Bond uses women to save the planet. It is not a pretty comparison.

Start with… you.

People are increasingly doubting every single answer they get. So, start building up trust. Put things in perspective. Show there is a rainbow of colors between black and white. Be understanding, but firm. Show your clients the ethical path, the balanced choice. The battle for the consumer is fierce. Once the dust and smoke settles, it will be clear that brands that proved to be truthful and trustworthy have a competitive edge… and that is a bankable advantage.

Trust me, I am a consultant.

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