It was C.P. Scott, owner and editor of the Manchester Guardian, who first coined the phrase “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. The paper’s current iteration, the Guardian, claims that the mantra continues to underpin its traditions today.
While it’s an admirably lofty ambition (although one that might not stand up under real scrutiny of the self-confessed left-leaning paper), this idea of the importance of truth is under threat like never before.
It might seem perverse, but the threat comes from one of the principles that Scott would undoubtedly have held dear: free speech. The internet and the social media channels it spawned have made the theory of America’s First Amendment a reality. That is, anyone can say anything about anything.
This bypassing of the traditional media channels that would curate and, at their best, seek the truth on the public’s behalf would seem at face value to be a good thing. The ability of social media to mass-disseminate theories and ideas, and to allow people to debate them with others and examine the evidence to create a well-informed view seems beneficial. It’s little wonder, then, that the era of citizen journalism has been lauded as favorable. No longer was the public constrained by the whims of the proprietors of media outlets—or by what Marxist theorists call “state ideological apparatus”. (Pretty much all media has its bias, except for those that are so purposely bland, in order to appeal to mass audiences, that they lack any bite or reach.)
The reality, however, has been very different—and this isn’t necessarily good, either, for seekers of the truth. Echo chambers have become a reality. People now interact only with those who think like they do; people with differing opinions can be blocked or bullied without rational debate or, in the worst cases, respect for alternative views. This has created an entrenchment where those who shout the loudest are heard, regardless of whether they have the most to say or the better ideas.
We should all be concerned about the implications for brand behavior. The internet is driving a trend that strongly favors the emotional or the eye-catching—bold and febrile claims that might or might not stand up to scrutiny but become popular movements in their own right. Brands that make the biggest, boldest claims, rather than scrupulously sticking to the truth and deploying measured language, might find that they get the most attention.
Obviously, all must operate within the confines of the law, but this is unlikely to stop them from pushing the boundaries and making the sort of claims that will echo around the chamber, regardless of their proximity to the truth. In short, their bullshit will just join all the other bullshit that populates the loonier elements of the web, where people are increasingly satisfied with the concept of “truthiness” (defined by Stephen Colbert as “What you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are”).
Those brands that have established their reputations based on trust and an intimate relationship with the consumer, built up over years and with considerable amounts of money, could therefore find themselves at the mercy of bullshitters, telling consumers what they want to hear rather than what’s good for them—or the truth.
This threat is as real and as dangerous as that of the mass hysteria and the conspiracy theories that now abound on the internet and on social media perpetuated by groups that want it to be true, regardless of the facts — if those facts can still be found, that is.
Marian Salzman is the CEO of Havas PR North America and chair of the Havas PR Global Collective