How to Avoid Getting Sucker-Punched by Internet ‘Facts’

Don’t you love those Internet facts? You know, the ones that aren’t facts at all, they’re fodder for our own confirmation bias, and weapons in the Outrage Wars.

In the early days of the social web, we thought that bringing people together would create a knowledge utopia. What we got instead was a battleground of competing ideas — many of them misguided or just plain wrong.

In this 20-minute episode, I talk about:

  • What a faked chocolate study showed about our own gullibility
  • The scary power of our own bias
  • How “Internet facts” can hurt business
  • The pitfalls of content marketing best practices
  • Why your data is more important than big data

The Show Notes

How to Avoid Getting Sucker-Punched by Internet ‘Facts’

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Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is a very special kind of facts, Internet ‘facts.’ You know the kind of facts that are not facts at all? Usually, they’re just fodder for our confirmation bias and weapons to throw at each other in the outrage wars. Sometimes they can lead us to make really, really silly decisions.

What a Faked Chocolate Study Showed about Our Own Gullibility

I want to talk about a really useful and interesting hoax. You might have seen this a couple of months ago. A journalist whose name is John Bohannon conducted the most poorly designed nutrition study that he could think of. He got the results published. Then he publicized it as groundbreaking.

It was a study that showed that chocolate helped people lose weight. It was picked up all over the place on print — magazines, health magazines, all kinds of web news sites. Not just by your gullible cousin on Facebook, but by a lot of people who should have known better.

Why did it work? Well, it worked for a couple of reasons. First, it made for a great headline. You should know, if you don’t know already, really good headlines are very, very important in content marketing. Frankly, a lot of people share content without reading it, so all they have to go on are the image and the headline.

We can use this to our benefit because it’s a way that our content can get passed around from person to person until it hits that person for whom it’s really perfectly relevant. It can, of course, also bite you if you read something that has a great headline — maybe in that case, the headline’s better than the contents — and you become convinced of the claims.

I’m not hating on great headlines. Great headlines are important to getting the word out. But a great headline can get a really thin, just a really stupid piece of content, shared. Of course, it wasn’t only the headline. It had a couple of other things going for it.

First, it was a published study. It was published in a ‘scientific journal.’ One of the things I love about this hoax is it demonstrated that the amount of just flat-out nonsense right now that’s being published by and backed up by so-called research is kind of depressing. What Bohannon did was he made us aware that, for a really very small amount of money, any yahoo can publish a study. It doesn’t only plague the nutrition field, but that’s where it’s probably worst.

The other thing that this hoax showed — and it’s a great stunt. It’s a great hoax. It was, I think, a very worthwhile thing for him to do — it shows how easy it is to manipulate your crummy study into saying what you want it to say.

He could have interpreted the results of that study any number of different ways. This is one that happens a lot. You get somebody who has a platform, has a lot of people listening to what they have to say, and they cite all kinds of research. You might have a fad diet book. It might have 40 pages of citations to research papers. Even in the cases where the research is good — and usually it’s not — if you look at the research, it doesn’t make the claim that the supposed authority says it makes.

The Scary Power of Our Own Bias

That’s another way that the study can be manipulated, that research can be manipulated into just backing Internet facts that are not just suspect, they’re just wrong. Probably the biggest reason that the study worked is that it played into what people wanted to believe.

If his claim had been chocolate prevents you from losing weight, it wouldn’t have gotten the same play. Because the study purported to show that chocolate helped you lose weight, everybody wanted to report on it. It’s counterintuitive, which is also nice. It’s also helpful, but it’s so much nicer when that conclusion is something that you want it to be.

Once your bias has started to trend in a particular direction, you will be attracted to anything that reinforces that trend. This is how a bias, a trend toward a particular bias, gets solidified into a belief and just becomes harder and harder, and more difficult, to shift.

It goes from being a bias to being a belief when there is no amount of evidence that’s going to convince you otherwise. It could be a belief about just almost anything — carbohydrates, race relations, business, parenting, health. Whatever it is, the more counter evidence gets thrown at you, the more reasons you’ll find why you shouldn’t accept that counter evidence. That’s how you know it’s hardened into a belief. There’s no amount of evidence that’s ever going to change your mind.

Here’s the thing about bias. I have biases. You have biases. Smart people have biases. People can be tremendously smart, skeptical, and critical thinkers in 80 percent of their life, and then they’ll have those blind spots. They’ll have that 20 percent where they’re just completely as susceptible to nonsense as your dopey cousin Eddie.

We don’t get to live without bias. We don’t get to have brains that are not subject to bias. That’s just not how brains work. We use beliefs. We use these shortcuts and shorthand to sift through all the things that we see in the world and filter out what we don’t need.

If you’re looking for a great read on this, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before. Johnathan Haidt has a wonderful book called The Righteous Mind. It’s a very interesting, readable look on how we do this. Some of his hypotheses about why we do it, about what we get out of it — really good read.

We don’t get to have a special, superior kind of brain that’s immune to bias. What we do get to do is make a commitment to being willing to look at all of the evidence and being willing to change our mind if the preponderance of the evidence starts to weigh in a different direction.

Having that willingness to say, “Well, maybe I would be willing to think about this differently. I might have jumped the gun earlier.” Always asking yourself, “Who is presenting this information, and why do I believe it? What is it about this person that makes me think that they’re a credible resource?” You especially want to ask that question if it’s something that you violently agree with — question, question, question.

How ‘Internet Facts’ Can Hurt Business

This isn’t just about your health. It’s not just about your personal life. This kind of bias and bogus information comes up all the time in business. We have to stay very skeptical. By the way, when I say ‘skeptical,’ skepticism is not the same thing at all as cynicism. In fact, I will make the argument that it’s the opposite.

It’s not cynical to look very carefully at the evidence and question its validity. It’s not cynical to look at the whole picture and keep your mind open. Cynicism itself is actually a belief. It’s a hardened belief that whatever it is that you’re cynical about is bad, and there’s no way it can ever change. That’s very, very rarely true.

There are a few things worth being cynical about, but most things in this world are not 100 percent bad. Most things in this world could change for the better. Most things in this world do have something worth looking at.

Talking about how these Internet facts can hurt business, one of the first things I want to talk about is that a chart is not data. I don’t mean to pick on this idea because I did tease them a little bit on the blog. This idea of ‘content shock’. There was a very widely shared article about content shock which made a big assertion and an interesting argument that we were reaching a point where content would stop being effective because we were simply producing more content then the human species could actually consume.

It was a great essay, but it didn’t prove the point. It was an interesting editorial, but people took it as fact. One of the reasons they took it as fact is because the article included a really good chart. The chart showed the projection for the point at which content would stop working — volume of content increases, human population increases, but not as quickly, number of hours in a day remain steady, and bing, we can plot the point at which content stops working.

It was a very good visual illustration of the idea. I think that’s all the author meant by it. He certainly, I don’t think, meant to deceive anybody. As soon as we see a chart, we think we have data. We don’t have data. We have a chart. We see this all the time in business reporting. We see projections. We see charts that are put on a trajectory. “Okay, if this trend keeps going at the same rate, this is what the trajectory will look like.” Then that’s used as evidence that the future’s going to look a certain way.

We even have this profession of futurists, whose job it is to let us know what’s going to happen next. But, it’s very useful to look backwards at what actually happened when you look at futurists’ predictions from the past.

It turns out they’re about as accurate as a smart fortune teller. We don’t have crystal balls. A computer is not a crystal ball. A model is not a crystal ball. A trajectory is not a crystal ball. Now, we can look at the current situation, and we can try to make smart guesses. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a completely valid, smart thing to do.

But when somebody starts getting paid to tell you, “This is what’s going to happen in the future,” we have to recognize that the world is complicated and chaotic. We’re going to get surprised. New things are going to happen. Keep your eyes open in the now. Keep your eyes on what’s going on now, and just remember that future projections — whether you get them from a professional futurist, an article in Harvard Business Review, or just your own ideas about looking at the data and seeing where it seems to be trending — they’re always a best guess.

The Pitfalls of Content Marketing Best Practices

I talked a little bit ago about a killer headline on a piece of bad information can make it spread a lot farther and faster than it should. I teach content marketing best practices. I think they are a good thing. We need to use good headlines and other kinds of best practices if we want to get the message out.

But, we also need a pretty solid understanding of what these techniques are so that we can see when they’re being used to paint a false picture or a picture that is possibly true, but there are a lot of other plausible scenarios. Of course, anything you learn about persuasion, about content, about how to get the word out, use it ethically and use it responsibly.

Attention is the first letter of virtually every sales formula. If you can’t get attention, then you can’t go any further. If you can’t get the audience to pay attention to you, nothing else you say is ever going to matter. You can’t deliver them any kind of information about your product, your service, your project, your nonprofit, or whatever it is that you’re promoting. Everybody needs attention. We are vying for a limited supply of attention. There are a limited number of people on the planet, and they have a limited amount of attention to spend on what you’ve got to say.

The same thing is true for journalists writing business stories. They are in the same marketplace of attention that marketers are. It’s especially true for a site that’s supported by advertising. It is not, unfortunately, really in their best interest to dive in and find the nuance of the story. A lot of especially web-based journalism, but it is definitely, definitely spreading to print, including the ‘respectable print.’

Big strokes, big ideas, and if it’s a 180 degrees wrong, well, there’s more coming tomorrow. This is where all of those X, Y, Z is dead stories come from — email is dead, SEO is dead, blogging is dead, podcasting is dead, everything is dead. You see these stories. They pop up all the time. Everything that works, everything valid has been pronounced dead over and over again because these stories get attention. They get shared. People want to know what’s going on.

I’ve definitely done my own versions of these stories. I do try to get the nuance into the actual story. I will give you a spoiler. If you ever see anything I write that says, “Is particular topic dead?” — it won’t be. I haven’t ever used that headline when the thing is actually dead. I’ve used it to try and get attention to the fact that, no, it’s still alive and kicking. Email marketing’s still alive and kicking. People still have email despite what you might read. I’ve actually moved away from it because I just think it’s a bit dopey. It’s definitely cheap.

Why ‘Your’ Data Is More Important Than ‘Big’ Data

There are plenty of ‘respectable news’ sites that fall prey to this seeking attention first, and if the nuance of the story is going to make it get less attention, then we might not investigate every angle. The New York Times publishes a lot of tremendous work. They have some excellent reporting, but sometimes, they publish stuff that’s embarrassingly terrible. I see it regularly.

For example, The New York Times published a story recently about Amazon and how Amazon — it’s a great story because it’s a very compelling read — about how every employee cries at their desk. It’s a horrible place to work, and it’s soul crushing.

Here’s the funny thing about that story. There were quite a few follow-up stories that other journalists did looking at — of course, current and former employees — but resources like the site Glassdoor where people review their employer frankly. You can actually get a pretty good pulse of the company by looking at it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know some people who are engineers at Amazon. The New York Times story never really rang true with what they were saying. It turns out, when you look at more of the story, for some people, Amazon is genuinely just a miserable, horrible experience. For some people, Amazon is a really great employer. Definitely very intense, but maybe not a soul-crushing hell hole.

That’s not as fun as every single employee cries at their desk. Every employee I’ve known at Amazon cries at their desk. Now, that’s a lot of people’s truth. Amazon is evil to virtually every employee. Maybe there’s 10 executives who get a pass, and everybody else is suffering. It’s a great story. It’s a compelling story, but it’s really not getting to the truth — which is kind of what we would like The New York Times to be doing for us.

Amazon is a soul-crushing hell hole becomes an Internet fact. All of sudden now, we get articles, counter articles, and responses based around this fact — which is a little more wobbly than maybe I would prefer my facts to be.

Just because we have a chart, we don’t have data. We talked about that. Just because you have a visual representation of an idea, that doesn’t mean that there’s sound data behind that chart — even if there is good data. It’s important to remember that, in every trend, there’s a counter trend. The giant mass of data, even if it’s trustworthy — and, of course, you have to look really skeptically and critically to make sure that it is trustworthy — it may not be applicable to you. It may not be applicable to your business, to your project, or to your audience. Your data is more important than big data.

This is a really big planet. It has a lot of people on it. We’ve got more of those people coming along every minute. We’re hyper-connected to each other because of the Internet. If there are five billion people that are going in one direction, that still leaves more than a billion people going the other way. When you’re looking for, “Well, what do I make my decisions on? If I don’t make my decisions on data, what do I make my decisions on?” Absolutely use data to inform your decisions. That’s just smart.

First, look at your data more closely and weigh it more heavily than aggregate data about the general population, unless you’re Coca-Cola. If you serve everyone, then you have to look at the biggest data set you can, but most of us don’t serve everyone.

What you can trust are things like how your people behave, your audience, your prospects, your leads, and your customers. What do they buy? What they buy will for sure tell you what they like and what they value. What campaigns do they donate to? What questions do they ask? What are they talking about with your sales people or your support people?

The Internet-fueled news world is based on this idea that the world is changing every second. You know the world has always been changing every second. There is that expression, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” There are some basic elements of human nature that just usually tend to shine through — good elements and bad elements. You want to look for patterns, but most of all, you want to know your audience.

Finally, you want to stay flexible. I think this is one of the most important qualities that a writer, a business owner, or a marketer has in the 21st century. Keep your mind, your eyes, and your ears open. Observe everything. Closely observe your audience, your market. Test things. We’re such a big believer at Copyblogger Media in small, focused tests of products, of ideas, of things to talk about, services. Then rework your experiments based on your observation.

You’re your own scientist. You are the scientist of your own business. That’s true whether you’re a copywriter, whether you’re a freelancer, whether you’re in a marketing department, whether you’re the owner. We can all observe, test, and then revise based on our own experience and our own connection with the audience that we serve.

I would love to know if you have your favorite fake news story or fake Internet fact. Let me know in the comments at PinkHairedMarketer.FM. I would love to see it. You can also Tweet it to me @SoniaSimone.

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Thank you so much for your time and attention. I’ll catch you soon.