What options do companies have in the battle to shape public opinion in this era of digital transformation?
Online news and information often polarize and fuel emotions rather than actually inform. A current WWF video is a prime example. The question is this: How should a company like Bayer deal with this situation? And in the digital age, do we have the right to respond in similarly provocative ways?
Head of Corporate Communications Bayer AG
Over the past few months, much has been written about the impact of digital media and how the norms for social interactions and discourse have changed. Social media have given every one of us a voice, and editorial filters have disappeared. We have all become overly familiar with the downsides of this liberation: post-factual debates and the amplification of extreme opinions in echo chambers dominated by like-minded users. We have also seen a change in tone. “Few still care about a nuanced discussion – or facts,” as science writer Ulli Kulke recently pointed out. Peter Huth, editor-in-chief of the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, noted that we are living in a society in which “ever harsher judgments are being formed ever more quickly, facts increasingly mean nothing, and feelings are everything.”
More and more, the problems associated with this “post-factual” shaping of public opinion are affecting the business world, too. Activists are taking full advantage of this situation – particularly, in recent months, to raise doubts about the herbicide glyphosate. No image is too absurd, no comment too coarse, no analogy too embarrassing – as long as the message polarizes and provokes an emotional response. Even the briefest comment almost always includes the same exact words: “probably carcinogenic.” The fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer is practically alone in reaching that conclusion doesn’t matter. The fact that the IARC evaluates only the theoretical risk, but not the actual likelihood of developing cancer, doesn’t matter. The fact that it reaches precisely the same conclusion about red meat, hot tea, shift work and solar rays doesn’t matter. Objective information is deliberately ignored in favor of polemics.
A prime example is a current WWF video, in which the narrators do everything in their power to polarize and emotionalize any discussion of the herbicide. The video goes so far as to include a surreptitiously recorded and selectively edited telephone call to a Bayer spokesperson, which contained as many as eight cuts in an effort to shed the worst possible light on a 26-second statement.
So the question is this: How should a company like Bayer respond to a campaign that seeks only to provoke an emotional response, rather than promote an objective discussion?
One option, of course, is simply to ignore such provocations. But that would mean allowing emotional and largely fact-averse messages to shape public opinion – messages formulated by those who must always have one eye on attracting donations to their organizations. Arguing in favor of participation in the public discussion is the first and most important axiom of the influential communication theorist Paul Watzlawick: “One cannot not communicate.”
But do we, too, have the same right to use such methods to share our views – without resorting to manipulation or falsehoods, of course? If so, our response to the WWF video could look something like this:
Whether such a response would contribute to our goal of a more fact-based discussion is a legitimate question. Unfortunately, messages that manipulate rather than inform are extremely common in digital media – and they are having a corresponding impact on public opinion.
For our part, we believe in facts, not disinformation. In a world grappling with population growth, food shortages and climate change, scientific evidence is our currency. Joining together with those who share our concern for the facts, we will continue to discuss how facts can prevail over prejudices – in a time of increasingly digitalized communications that are leading to ever greater polarization.