The internet enables constant and immediate access to information, products and diversions to occupy our time. Persistent streams of news, humour and daily updates from those in our networks are constantly available, and, increasingly, so are we. With a connected device always to hand, the ability to send a response is only ever a few thumb-taps away. The pressure is compounded by double blue ticks, green “available” online status circles, and re-sharing statistics – constant reminders that we are expected to join the conversation.
In 2011, Richard Torrenzano defined an “internet day” – the response time to prevent digital harm – as only eight hours long in his book Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand or Business Against Online Attacks, highlighting the gap between traditional media response plans and the expectations of an online world. Fast-forward to 2023, and a world of shares, comments and generative AI in which misinformation can spread faster than ever, and Torrenzano’s response window now stands at just two hours. Today, a narrative can run amok, and speculation can travel a huge distance at lightning speed, all while the official response is still putting its proverbial boots on. Any response to a crisis that takes a whole working day is simply too slow.
Consistency in all things
In this environment, it’s vital for companies to have an action plan in place and be ready to create and sign off on any response to an online crisis, cutting through red tape to respond at speed. A brand must be poised to decide what meaningful response it can create within this timeframe. This may not mean joining in the conversation directly: it is more important to ensure core values are upheld than to address misinformative narratives, and in some cases engaging with the spread is likely to fuel attention that would otherwise die out on its own.
A coordinated and multifaceted approach is critical to ensuring that your message is ready for the modern internet. Key individuals must be instantly contactable, able to rapidly grasp the nuance of a situation, maintain a solid awareness of the processes and etiquette of each social platform, and have sufficient cover in case of absence.
When a response is necessary, the goal should be a clear, unified message with no internal contradictions. Airbnb recently came under scrutiny for a disjointed response to the tragic wildfires in Maui. Despite the initial positive moves of offering temporary stays to displaced people through its charitable arm and invoking its extenuating circumstances policy to allow customers to cancel stays without penalty, Airbnb was criticised by both hosts and guests for poor communication. It eventually extended the dates of the policy for a further week to properly accommodate the effects of the disaster, but not before reputational damage had been done.
Maintaining vigilance against new threats and old
While internet users have long been warned about the need to fact-check media, misinformation has taken on new forms that make it harder to identify. Many AI chatbots fail to attribute their sources, which can lead to users unwittingly trusting responses that are based on unreliable sources, or even “hallucinations”.
In June 2023, the first defamation case was brought against OpenAI by American radio host Mark Walters, who claimed ChatGPT provided journalist Fred Riehl with the false information that he had been sued for embezzlement by the Second Amendment Foundation. In reality, the case had been brought against Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, rather than Walters, who had no connection to the case whatsoever.
In the age of the two-hour internet day, even the potential for a misleading story to break must be monitored carefully. Organisations and individuals must be alert to the possibility of distortion of their brands, and quick to take the necessary steps to protect their digital integrity.
AI and convincing deepfakes are becoming more commonplace in the news, but even simple manipulations can mislead and spread quickly. Labour MP Karl Turner recently apologised for sharing an image of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, unaware that it had been doctored. Checking and attributing sources is a key step in identifying where distorted narratives diverge from the original, enabling false narratives to be identified before they are shared further.
Protecting your brand in a two-hour day
In a world where false information can be generated and shared so quickly and easily, the two-hour internet day certainly rings true. It is more vital than ever for those in business to make clear, coordinated plans so they can respond within this punishing timeframe if needed. However, it is equally important in the battle against reputational damage to ensure you build and maintain a robust foundation of up-to-date and accurate information online: trusted official accounts combined with a strong brand voice are harder to mimic than digital profiles with low and inconsistent output.
Ensuring your values are well-represented in your search engine results profile can help users to identify and dismiss any spurious claims about you that do emerge online. With Alphabet’s bullish second quarter results indicating that search engine results remain key to seeking out information online, when the internet day is done and the work of those two hours takes effect, both resilience and recovery depend on a holistic, long-term digital strategy.