Don’t fake it. It’s not worth it.

There is a town in Macedonia called Veles which is about the size of Perth. It is a one-time moderately successful industrial centre which has fallen on harder times and is unremarkable in almost every way, except for the fact that it played a pivotal role in one of the most contentious general elections in American history.

In 2016, reality TV star and questionable businessman Donald Trump improbably took the presidency and his success was attributable, in part at least, to the best efforts of some enterprising souls in Veles and their laptops.

In the three months leading up to the poll, the 20 top performing fake news stories about the election generated more shares, likes and comments on Facebook than the 20 top-performing stories from established news brands like the New York Times, Washington Post and NBC News. A whole bunch of these stories, including the now infamous claims that the Pope backed Trump and Hilary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS originated from IP addressed in Veles.

What had happened in this town of red-roofed buildings and industrial smokestacks was someone realised that fake news could be profitable and told their friends. They could not just make a bit of money out of peddling falsehoods; they could make small fortunes. And the more gullible the audience, the more profitable their efforts could be.

Most of the articles spread from Veles vilified Clinton and glorified Trump. This was not because the town liked gold towers, fake tans and unhinged hyperbole. It was because the Trump audience believed the stories and lapped them up. They wanted as much of it as they could get and Trump was duly elected on the back of fake news.

For the computer-literate people of Veles, the lure of clickbait was irresistible and in the world of unregulated news publishing in which the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram exist, nobody could stop them filling their boots. The town to this day is full of internet millionaires.

The world has moved on, slightly, from 2016. Social media is still unregulated but general awareness of fake news has grown enough that the industrial scale misinformation of that US election campaign is unlikely to be as successful ever again. The lure of scale of audience still attracts the money on the internet, however, and the vanity attached to large audiences means there are still too many people in too many influential positions who care too much about size when it comes to communicating their message.

The real lesson of Veles is that messaging in the digital age is hugely important. But of even more value is the quality of the audience and how you engage with it in a meaningful way and in an atmosphere of trust and respect. That is not easy to do and it involves so much more than simply creating a Facebook page and grabbing as much of an audience as you can. It is about content creation, understanding your audience, knowing what they want, how and when they want it and, crucially, respecting their intelligence. Most organisations need help to do that successfully.

You could flood the world with stories of how important you or your organisation may be but remember without proper targeting, engagement and quality of content, you will be screaming in an echo chamber and will end up being nothing more than the star of the show in some teenager’s bedroom in Veles, Macedonia.


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