Communication in the Age of Disinformation

January 16, 2020

Communication in the Age of Disinformation

January 16, 2020

Group Gordon’s Nick Berkowitz explains why, in the age of disinformation, it’s essential to know your target audiences and ensure they trust your communications.

With the Iowa Caucus just a few weeks away, efforts to warp public opinion are in full swing, especially through digital disinformation. On Monday, The New York Times reported that the same Russian-backed organizations that breached the Democratic National Committee’s servers in 2016 had hacked a Ukranian gas company in search of dirt on 2020’s Democratic frontrunner. But the effects of political disinformation go beyond politics, with consequences for nonpolitical communication, too. Companies must know their audiences better than ever to earn their trust and keep their attention in the face of rampant disinformation.

Suspicion and Scrutiny

A chief result of disinformation is that people are on the lookout for signs that what they’re reading isn’t true or authentic. Audiences are scrutinizing details well beyond traditional markers of trust like facts, grammar, or organizational voice.

For example, the authenticity and sincerity of a recent apology by the CEO of Uber was called into question by San Francisco’s design-savvy startup community over typographic inconsistencies–inconsistencies which hinted that the apology had been written by a PR team.

Audience Fatigue

Unfortunately, the flipside of audience hypervigilance is audience fatigue.

While competition for attention is already impossibly high, audiences subject to disinformation are worn out by constantly second-guessing the truth of what they are consuming. As a result, many simply don’t have the energy for content that’s less interesting or of lesser quality than it could be. Those standards differ among audiences: What makes something accessible to one audience might turn another off.

In 2020, unless an organization is trying to reach a highly specialized group or a regulatory body, their target audiences and the journalists writing for them won’t stick around long enough to find a message buried in a long wire release.

In the age of disinformation, understanding what makes a message easily digestible for an audience is essential to keeping that audience interested.

Unforced Errors

Disinformation can also expose organizations to new, acute reputational risks, especially concerning for organizations unaccustomed to negative media or public antagonism.

Over the past year, many nonprofits that receive money from philanthropists with public political alignments (like the Koch Brothers or George Soros) were tangled into disinformation narratives aimed at their benefactors.

Organizational leadership is often tempted to swiftly and firmly correct the record. But issuing a correction carries the risk of drawing additional attention to the falsehood and furthering the organization’s association to it. Before taking such a risk, it’s essential for organizations to understand if the information has even reached the organization’s target audience and whether or not it has impacted that audience’s perception.

Effective communication is always tailored to its target audience. With the rise of global disinformation, and even advances in targeted advertising, audience tolerance for content that even slightly misses the mark has never been lower. In this new reality, communications professionals in every sector must take the necessary steps to know their audiences and ensure their messages are getting through.