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Fake video and the illusion of message control: on marketing and zealotry

By Kari Dean McCarthy / July 12, 2018

The human brain hates surprises.

Tell me a story that doesn’t jibe with my belief in a friend, and I’ll question your story before I’ll question my friend.

Much as I try to rise above confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — two variations of the tendency to cherry pick facts to fit our beliefs — these are very human imperfections. Rather than scrutinize our own thoughts, we’ll scrutinize the source, content and context of any statement that challenges them. We look for loopholes to keep our perspective intact.

Now, with the arrival of deepfakes — AI-generated fake videos that rival movie-studio quality but can be produced in your tech-savvy neighbor’s basement — I started wondering how much these would test our convictions. How much will it take to convince me that the people I know might not be who I think they are.

What if a deepfake (a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”) featured my family member or close friend? An acquaintance or coworker? Anyone about whom I’ve already “decided.”

When our beliefs about someone — that they are good or evil, brilliant or boring — are questioned, it gives us pause. Deepfakes offer a very convincing reason to pause. They make us believe we’re “seeing it with our own eyes.”

Let’s bring that to the brand level. What if a fake video circulated about the cosmetics company I trust to advance animal welfare? Or the pharma brand I’ve long used for my kids?

I was vacationing halfway around the world when I was asked to consider this new threat, one The Atlantic predicts will “make the current era of fake news seem quaint.” As a video strategist, did I think one technology might save us from another? As a brand strategist, did I think deepfakes were worth losing sleep over?

During that same trip, I happened to meet Ron,manager of the Malaysian resort where my young daughter and I stayed. Ron showed me the way to some answers.

But first, the important question of technologies. How can they help keep brands safe?

The security game and blockchain

The printing press was the first technology to threaten society with the potential to spread false information at scale. Much later, Photoshop was heralded as the “end of reality.” Sure, photographs already had been manipulated in darkrooms for more than a century. But technology and automation are tipping points in risk assessment, the place where expectations of sinister activity are upgraded from “possible” to “likely.”

Today, photo manipulation experts range from my kindergartner to my grandma. And despite the endless opportunities for doctoring — from lens to app to desktop — digital photographs are still admissible court evidence. Just as video evidence will be. Digital signatures and authentication processes exist. And they evolve.

Technological good guys and bad guys will always battle, always spur mutual inventiveness. And  here comes blockchain, the latest white hat offering a safety net.

You might not yet care about blockchain, but you can rely on some groups that do — like the finance, defense and entertainment industries, to name a few with the most to win and the most to lose. Homeland Security already uses blockchain to confirm the origin and integrity of video data.

In the future, major media sources — from news channels to social networks — may automatically reject videos that lack verified digital signatures. When that’s the norm, unverified videos will probably be ignored by most everyone.

Well, everyone except for the zealots — the people who don’t care if a statement, photo or video is true, so much as they care if it supports a view they already hold. Zealots are the poster children for confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

That doesn’t sound like a positive assessment for zealotry. But in marketing — like politics, religion, and definitely family — there’s serious value in having people who believe in you. Maybe not fanatics in the traditional sense, but fans who, when faced with a video that seems incongruous with what they believe about you, will give you the benefit of the doubt. At least once.

I’m not advocating for brainwashing and cults, but it’s worth your time to consider that technology alone might not be enough to save you when it comes to fake video. But customers, fans and followers who trust you? They might be more than enough.

Of course, you must actually earn that trust. And that brings me back to resort manager Ron.

Zealots aren’t acquired, they’re made

I had never been to Malaysia, and I don’t speak Malay, so being way out of my comfort zone made me more open than usual to some friendly assistance. Ron probably knows that. So, from the time my sandals hit the hotel lobby in Ipoh, Ron the general manager put me at the center of his universe.

Touchpoints to connect with me cropped up in places I didn’t even notice at first, but Ron didn’t miss a single one. A freshly made gingery juice landed in my hand each time I waited for assistance at the front desk. A multilingual employee helped me with a phone call that could have ruined a day of adventure. And someone, somewhere, was always cheerfully engaging with my daughter.

Ron was never ingratiating, and took little credit, but I knew he was the source of the excellent service. He was earning my trust.

He did more than engage. He added value. Early one day, he asked my daughter and I about our adventure threshold. Waterfall rappelling or a local zoo? Then he WhatsApp’d me ideas for our itinerary.

It turns out Ron was a retired Deloitte consultant who’d spent a lifetime working with clients. Upon my arrival, he looked me up on LinkedIn and shared a few interesting tidbits about his time in my industry.

He chatted with us during dinner — but not too much. He asked questions, and he listened. He shared aspects of his life that were interesting and personal, but not too intimate. We weren’t friends, but in just a few days, I came to know and like Ron.

Eventually, I noticed I wasn’t the only one at the center of Ron’s universe. I tried not to be jealous. It shifted my trust in Ron to something bigger than Ron. Perhaps he was a direct reflection of his employer. Then I realized just how valuable Ron was to that resort.

Authenticity, transparency and values-based marketing are not fads or even trends. They’re the way consumers expect us all to do business. Brands that deliver on those promises are more likely to earn the affinity, loyalty and most importantly, the trust of consumers.

And brands with that kind of allegiance are likely to reap benefits even beyond advocacy. Followers who are loyal because they share values and feel trust are more likely to make decisions using motivated reasoning — our natural tendency to consider facts in a light that fits our existing view.

A decade ago, social media began mopping the floor with corporate expectations of mastering our brand message. Now, fake video is wielding another blow to our gossamer hold on brand control. And while the implications of deepfakes are larger than the concerns of  brands, a threat exists to any person or organization with an image to either burnish or tarnish.

When stories move at the speed of social, and videos are made to go viral, how do we deal with the story we didn’t design ourselves? To terraform this new world, we have to think differently about both people and technology. We have to shift focus from what’s out of our control to what’s in it.

With that perspective in mind, how big a deal is the threat of fake video?

Turns out, not a big one, as long as your brand health is in order. Check your values, and how you act on them. What do you believe, and where is that being manifest? Consider how you’re building trust with the people who mean the most to you — your employees and your customers.

At checkout time, if someone had played for me a video of Ron saying something truly nasty, I would have questioned it. I would have examined it closely and questioned my own sight and hearing. I would have looked for a reason not to believe it. Ron had been real with us and created exactly the right level of human connection. And he was helpful to a degree far exceeding our expectations for a lovely but not extravagant hotel.

Ron didn’t tell me how great his hotel was. I wouldn’t have believed him if he had. Ron connected with me, and he built a relationship.

One of the most important ways to inoculate people from the disease of false information is to befriend them. What does that look like for brands, social media, and especially video?

Videos do not create authenticity, transparency or value-based decisions. People do. Videos can express those qualities and communicate those activities. But alone, video  is a hollow representation of reality and quite easy to challenge.

Before we worry the world is becoming a Black Mirror episode, or that a rogue hacker in a neighbor’s basement could bring down a brand with a deepfake, let’s ground ourselves in prevention. Worry about what the brand is doing, and who it’s helping. Spend less time talking and more listening. Find those touchpoints and make them personalized, consistent, and authentic.

Along the way, a fierce kind of loyalty may form, the kind with roots in shared values, worldviews, identity and needs — the very elements that motivate each of us to accept or reject the information (or disinformation) we’re given. Identify those roots in the people you care about most — the audiences you have and the customers you seek — and adapt accordingly.

You’ll find deepfakes are little match for deep connections. And maybe you’ll sleep a little better tonight. I bet Ron does.

Kari Dean McCarthy

Kari Dean McCarthy

Kari founded the content strategy firm Get The Why to help brands translate their unique value into compelling content experiences. Her insatiable need to understand what makes people tick—and connect the digital dots—has moved audiences for Wired, CBS, Microsoft, Nestle, Hasbro, Fast Company, Forbes, and a host of other health, education and tech brands, including our very own Sprout Social. Her favorite adventures include waterfall rappelling with her kids, collecting partial graduate degrees, and transforming her wild dogs into lazy cats.
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