Roxanne Vure

By Roxanne Vure, Associate Director, MediaCom Manchester

Chloroquine is a proven cure, children are immune, and the virus is spread via 5G – oh, and don’t forget to eat garlic for proven infallible protection…

Back in February, the World Health Organisation announced that accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic was an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.

Formerly, considerations around misinformation and ‘fake news’ propaganda have centred largely around politics, Russian electoral interference and celebrity scandals. But now with Covid-19, the first major global health emergency within the era of fake news, it could have sombre implications for public safety and unsurprisingly, has accelerated conversations about the responsibilities of conscious advertising.

Ofcom’s latest report reveals that during the third week of the lockdown, 50% of all respondents had come across false or misleading information about Covid-19 – up from 46% in week one. The destructive consequences of fake news on Covid-19 stretch from people damaging 5G masts to burning their own nostrils with a hairdryer, and the effects are also being felt in our media world.

We’ve already seen increased efforts from Government bodies towards policy changes and social platforms including Facebook and Twitter, have marshalled to introduce new regulations removing posts which failed independent fact-checking.

In the UK there are early signs to be optimistic about consumer behaviour after Ofcom revealed that in just 3 weeks the proportion of respondents using fact-checking sites had increased (to 18%), and those who forwarded or shared the misinformation decreased to just 4% (from 7%). Could this crisis trigger more vigilant and mindful consumers? Alongside a revived dose of scepticism there may well be a greater expectation for censorship across all channels, and from advertisers.

Repercussions for the media

The relationship between fake news and advertising is symbiotic – they encourage each other. Fake news and advertising follow a cyclical pattern (as Berthon and Pitt described in 2018) that snowballs as algorithms take hold. This has been further exposed with the abrupt impact of Covid-19 which has raised the stakes for brand responses.

Writing in Campaign, Damien Collins MP called out for marketers to join the battle against fake news, stating ‘there can be no better carriers of the truth virus than the masters of engagement and positive communication’.

In the post-truth era, do brands have a responsibility to join the battle against fake news?

Answer: Yes. And during a pandemic more than ever.

Since the start of the crisis, media consumption and audience behaviour has changed- we’ve seen the UK flock to trusted news sites. With huge gains almost immediately for the BBC and long established broadsheets – indeed, 67% of Brits are “getting most of their information on the virus from major news organisations” well ahead of national government (34%) and social media (22%).

It all comes down to trust. The rise in fake news has reduced trust in advertising by 35%, threatening the reputational capital of all brands.

How does this affect how brands should be acting in response to Covid-19?

Every brand is different – most don’t have the resources to start producing hand sanitiser or donate unlimited products to keyworkers. Responses should be determined by the function and role of your brand communications. Inherently some brands have been forced to respond – these have the permission and the responsibility to their consumers to defend the truth (e.g. supermarkets, Dettol, Clorox in the US).

For many others, whom are battling the effects of Covid-19 across their business, entering brand safety and containment mode is the priority. For those continuing to communicate they need to ensure an appropriate and considered response.

There are other valid avenues in which to combat fake news – and benefits for doing so; with consumers spending less time being misinformed and more time with your brand.

Enter conscious spending, which uses marketing budget to encourage and support trusted news outlets and avoids blanket backlisting of Covid-19 keywords. By blocking ‘coronavirus’ and all related keywords, quality news sites who are producing vital (and truthful) content on the crisis are inadvertently being penalised.

Of course, this is not a new concept – ‘how and where brands spend their money says something about them and affects the impact and efficacy of all advertising in that environment.’ (Faris Yakob 2018). Encouraging conscious spending during this crisis will aid brands trying to establish trust in their messaging.

MediaCom has already taken strides to help create more sustainable quality inventory – with MediaCom’s Trust Network.  In partnership with The Ozone Project, this provides the best rates for all major newsbrands – allowing brands to support quality journalism at scale, while also providing assurances to advertisers of brand safety.

The reality is that fake news will affect your brand whether you like it or not. As responses to Covid-19 continue to be scrutinised, it’s more important than ever for brands to be making conscious choices about what they say and where they say it.

And looking to the future, the hope is that marketing money will be used with more mindful intention – strategic media planning which prioritizes consumer wellbeing and supports quality trusted environments.