I’m lucky enough to be writing this latest blog installment from Rome, where I’ve been participating in the Festival of Media Global conference. The schedule is full of discussion topics and speakers designed to elevate the conversation beyond the usual marketing conference menu of “the right metrics” or “engaging audiences.”

If I tell you that the “first human cyborg” and musician Neil Harbisson were on the bill to talk to us about how he can hear colours, you’ll get an idea of the ambition of the event.

As is often the way at conferences like this, I happened upon a talk by accident — it was about to begin and I had no other commitments. As with most wrong turns, this turned into a happy accident. The title of the panel was “Content for Humanity.” At first glance, a touch grandiose perhaps. However, actually given the context, the title grew on me — the overall theme was “in an ongoing environment of misinformation, how can content actually have a positive impact on society?”

Brands seek a trustworthy environment in which to advertise.
Brands seek a trustworthy environment in which to advertise.

Much has been reported and continues to be documented about “fake news.” Just recently, and more than a year after the original post had gone viral, Politico took a retrospective look at the parody taken as reporting that said the U.S. Supreme Court had banned Sharia Law, with a view to dissecting how fake news continues to spread. In this case, the Sharia Law story was cut and paste into people’s news feeds, copied (save for a few tweaks by bloggers), or appropriated by click-bait sites.

The question is why: People share these things, not to inform others so much as to share their own worldview and have it affirmed by their friends and followers in the form of likes and comments. People act as their own news aggregators but do not always check their sources.

The Edelman Trust Baromter 2018 makes a grim reading for traditional news organisations, confirming that “people have retreated into self-curated information bubbles.” Half of the survey’s respondents only look at traditional news outlets once a week, six in 10 agree that news outlets are politicised, and one in two agree they are elitist. 

The promising news is — and this was articulated clearly in the panel discussion I attended, where representatives of two of Europe’s most valuable car brands (Audi and Jaguar) were in attendance — brands want to advertise and engage with audiences in environments they can trust. Traditional journalism, where facts and sources are verified, has a role to play in creating these brand-safe environments on a publishers’ own properties.

While on other platforms, a clearly labeled commercial partnership between a publisher and a brand can connect in the right way with audiences: According to an Outbrain study of UK consumers undertaken last year, 66% trust content suggested by a premium publisher.

Such partnerships would not address the impulse of audiences to share stories that make them look good to their friends — but before they’re sharing content, people are looking for things that inform them and/or entertain them. If publishers and brands can do both of those things, and elevate the quality of content appearing in users’ news feeds as a result, then maybe that is a good thing for humanity? Grandiose or no.