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FAKING NEWS, AND HOW BRANDS ARE TACKLING IT

BY NEETA NAIR & SAMARPITA BANERJEE

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THE VICTIM BRANDSWhile incidents of violence have been instigated by videos circulating on WhatsApp, brands haven’t been spared either. The most recent example is of Kalyan Jewellers, which has suffered tangible and intangible losses to the tune of Rs 500 crore due to a fake video uploaded on YouTube which was circulated on WhatsApp and social media sites. The video, which the brand believes is being circulated by its rivals, gives an impression that the company is selling impure gold. Another example is of ITC Aashirwad Atta, one of the leading brands in the category, which also became a victim of false propaganda against it on social media sites. A video was leaked claiming that the brand is selling wheat with plastic in it. It is believed to have tanked the sales of the product in several states, following which the brand filed an FIR and released a TV commercial explaining the ingredients of the atta.

Elaborating on how that happened Gurjot Shah Singh, Media Head, Dentsu Webchutney says, “ITC Foods happens to be our client. The news on plastic being an ingredient in Aashirwad Atta was absolutely untrue. Now, whenever that kind of news spreads, rival brands deploy bots and pick up various technologies which are used to circulate it to even more forums in and outside of social media. So Facebook follows an annual practice where it takes down thousands of profiles and deletes them, but now they are looking at doing that on quarterly or halfyearly basis. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are increasing the frequency of their scrutiny, of taking these bots out.” So eliminating bots is one way of solving the problem but is that foolproof? Singh explains, “Such profiles are essentially created by both—at times they are human beings creating multiple fake profiles and on other occasions it is the bots which are creating multiple profiles by picking up pictures from repository, putting up different information. But if Facebook gets to know that there are about 220 profiles made from one IP in a day, it will automatically understand that it is a bot’s doing, and thus block it. But as the regulations are getting tighter and stricter, these bots are getting smarter. They hack the IP and create multiple IPs. They create different profiles from different IPs sitting at one source. So, that baffles platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and these bots become difficult for them to catch.” Meanwhile, we continue to hear countless examples of brands falling prey to fake news, be it the fictitious story about a Pepsi worker injecting HIV-infected blood into Pepsi products, the same allegation about Mondelez chocolates, cases of fake coupons being distributed in the name of Pizza Hut, Dominos, DMart on Facebook and WhatsApp (the mischief-mongers in DMart’s case are currently being investigated by the Mumbai Police). While some brands have fought back effectively (See box: HOW SOME BRANDS FOUGHT BACK) it is time that all brands consider this phenomenon as a major threat to their wellbeing and find a way to counter-attack.

HOW BRANDS SEE IT
Most advertisers we spoke to believe that it is the responsibility of social media platforms to keep a check on such posts and educate the audience. Sajeev Rajasekharan, EVP, SMIPL says, “The phenomenon of fake news has accelerated with the advent of social media, and it is up to the technology companies to come up with adequate firewalls in the system. They must come up with adequate checks and balances to instill accountability for the instigators. With the advancement of technology, fake news needs to be nipped in the bud and right at its origin.” So largely, marketers are saying that as a socially responsible organization, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Google have to methodically filter all the content that is reaching the audience, yet that has not stopped them from preparing for eventualities that can harm their brands.

Puneet Anand, Sr General Manager and Group Head, Marketing, Hyundai Motor India Limited says, “Online Reputation Management is a very important function at Hyundai. It is a very strong tool wherein we monitor each and every activity happening on any of our social platforms. My own team keeps listening to conversations on our YouTube page, Facebook page and Twitter handle. Any conversation that appears to be wrong, that is not in the interest of the audience, is filtered, if required it is removed or hidden away from the post to not let it affect the larger audience and tarnish brand Hyundai. We also send advisories to customers if we notice something is wrong.”

A PepsiCo India spokesperson said the brand has a similar defence mechanism, “At PepsiCo, protecting our brand’s equity is of utmost importance to us. We have been noticing a trend of fake and misleading content being circulated on social media and through WhatsApp which is a cause of concern. To ensure that our consumers are not misled with any false information, we follow a three-pronged strategy – one, monitoring and social listening through our Digital Command Centre – PEP Pulse, that helps with live monitoring of our brand’s health and engagement with consumers including responding to queries. Second, through stakeholder reachout programmes like influencer meetups, plant visits, emphasizing brand quality standards, retailer campaigns, etc. Third, taking legal action when our brand is targeted with content that is malicious and threatens our long term equity. We constantly urge all consumers to check for facts before they believe any content that comes their way and not fall prey to baseless and false information.”

On the other hand Sushil Matey, Director-Marketing, Livpure, says, “We have mapped out potential avenues of attack and our generic responses to such situations. We can take the help of our PR firms who specialize in crisis communication. Time is the key; the faster we respond to such news, the more customers we are going to retain. The brand has got to be calm and intelligently vocal with the facts by providing evidence and counterpoints. It is also imperative to find out the source of the news in question and ensure that strict action is taken against them. Having said that, every brand or company should utilize only legitimate thirdparty sources while sharing their information with consumers.”

OF BOTS & INFLUENCERS
The rise of the influencers is another by-product of social media; many brands use influencers to move the needle for their products. The question is, can they come to their aid in times of crisis too? Experts say it would be an immature and an unsustainable way to use influencers. It is like saying it’s your bot versus mine, your bot might be a technical outcome but my bot is a real person who I have bought. When the first wave of influencers came in, they gave genuine opinions but now anyone can be paid to promote anything. So with that thin line gone, credibility lost and customers becoming smart enough to understand the influencer play, the role of an influencer in times of crisis is also being questioned.



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