The US election result in 2016 suddenly focused us on the major problems caused by the spread of false information. This problem continued to increase with the advent of the coronavirus. But the problem of fake news, misinformation, false rumors, and propaganda has been around in various forms for thousands of years.
The main difference now is most likely the use of the internet. Not only is biased news and commentary available in traditional media but even more is all around us on the internet.
Over the past couple of decades, significant accuracy and facts within news have been supplanted by a trend towards opinion and comment, too often resulting in an insufficient and careless application of truth. The news media are profit-oriented businesses; they are not a public service. When media outlets find they are increasing their audience, they keep emphasizing the content that draws the larger audience, whether the content is fact or opinion, or even in some cases, fake.
Traditional news media maintain a relative filter to ensure accuracy in news, but the internet has vastly increased the number of sources of news and information available to the average person, who can now access content that aligns with their interests and biases in the vast ‘marketplace of ideas’ on the internet. Never mind facts and accuracy.
This created ‘post-truth’ news, in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, according to the Oxford Dictionary. People want vindication of their preconceptions and prejudices. A Pew Research Center survey in October 2016 found that 81% of US voters from opposing camps disagreed over basic facts, not just political policies.
A growing number of people, especially younger people, access their information via Facebook and other social media. Apparently, as the recent US election campaign moved close to polling day, fake news on Facebook outperformed real news in terms of engagement. The lesson is that phony news pushes out real news.
Members of the public are accessories to these disinformation campaigns. They are not being manipulated unsuspectingly; they can access news and information that echoes their own beliefs – in an ‘echo chamber.’ “Giving more control to users on what kind of information they are exposed to will make them more likely to continue to use these platforms,” according to Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim.
New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo quoted a research study finding that two people with different points of view can look at the same picture, video or document and come away with strikingly different ideas about what it shows. Any story we read that supports our views, or makes us angrier, we share without checking the source.
Author and researcher Neal Gabler believes laziness is a major factor in this distortion of truth: “We are a lazy people now – too lazy to hear anything we don’t want to hear, too lazy to defend the truth against those who hope to subvert it, and, finally, too lazy to protect our democracy.” Strong words, indeed.
As noted in the article “What you can do to combat misinformation” by Jessica Henderson published in this website, such lazy thinking can be explained through factors such as:
- Continued Influence Effect– people still remember misinformation even if it is refuted.
- Confirmation Bias – the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
- Mental Models Theory – People need to fill in a gap if a story has been refuted. If they are not provided with an alternative piece of information, they will turn to the inaccurate piece rather than having no explanation at all.
- Heuristics – mental shortcuts in processing information. As social beings, we find a useful shortcut when assessing the believability of a piece of information is assessing the credibility of the source rather than just the message. Surely if a trusted source like a friend or senior person in authority says something is true, it must be true!
Companies face inevitable rise in fake news
The sudden onslaught of fake news in politics means it will inevitably become more of a problem in business as well. Fake news can be spread about a company, its leaders, its employees, or its products and services. PR pros need to be prepared for this.
An example of this, as Richard Edelman discussed, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and her company were targeted in social media over false attribution of comments about Trump. Some people blatantly changed her words to make it appear she was personally attacking the President-elect. As people started to examine the evidence more closely, the story began to change. A number of leading news outlets – including Fortune, CNN, The Washington Post, the New York Post and the Financial Times – all exposed the partisan claims and set the record straight. CNN’s headline stated, “Trump supporters call to boycott Pepsi over comments the CEO never made.”
PR commentators like Shel Holtz and Gini Dietrich say efforts by Facebook, Google and others to stifle fake news will fail. People will find ways around the blocks, just as spammers and hackers who use computer viruses have. Such people may have various motives. They might include anti-corporate or political activists, competitors trying harassment tactics, dissatisfied shareholders, unethical share traders, frustrated whistleblowers, or they may just hold a grudge against the CEO or company.
At this stage there are no easy solutions on how best to respond to fake news. However, you can take certain steps.
A strategic move is to review your crisis preparedness plans and work through various scenarios about responding to false information circulating in the marketplace. Work out how to identify the culprits, their motives, and the appropriate response for each level of attack. More about this to come in future articles in cuttingedgepr.com.
Engage in strategic discussions involving PR, legal, risk management, and other relevant business areas about your company’s crisis response.
Closely monitor and fact check
Monitoring the external environment is a key step to identifying problems as soon as possible. Brief internal and external monitors to observe for fake news.
There are various fact-checking sites you can use. A good fact checking service will write with neutral wording and will provide unbiased sources to support their claims. Look for these two simple criteria when hunting for the facts.
The Media Facts website lists some US fact checking services:
Politifact – a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida. Politifact is the best source for political fact checking. Won the Pulitzer Prize.
Fact Check – FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.
Open Secrets – Open Secrets is a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, which is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. Open Secrets is by far the best source for discovering how much and where candidates get their money. They also track lobbying groups and whom they are funding.
Snopes – Snopes has been the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation for a long time. Snopes is also usually the first to report the facts.
The Sunlight Foundation – The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make government and politics more accountable and transparent to all. Sunlight mainly focuses on money’s role in politics.
Poynter Institute – The Poynter Institute is not a true fact checking service. However, it is a leader in distinguished journalism and produces credible, evidence-based content. If Poynter reports it, you can count on it being true.
Flack Check – FlackCheck.org It is the political literacy companion site to the award-winning FactCheck.org. The site provides resources to help viewers recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular.
Truth or Fiction – Very similar to Snopes. It focuses more on political rumors and hoaxes.
Hoax Slayer – Another service that debunks or validates internet rumors and hoaxes.
Fact Checker by The Washington Post – The Washington Post fact checks are excellent and sourced.
Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars offers some tips on analyzing news sources. Also, Shel Holtz mentions a Chrome extension that will display a pop-up warning if you visit a site that has been flagged on Professor Zimdars’s list, which could make it easy to check the validity of any story that crosses your feed.
Build strong stakeholder relationships
A stakeholder is any person, group or organization who can place a claim on an organization’s attention, resources or output, or is affected by that output. They have a stake in the organization, something at risk, and therefore something to gain or lose as a result of corporate activity. Over and over again, crisis cases remind us of the need to establish strong relationships with stakeholders such as journalists and opinion leaders, and also with key brand influencers. Spend the time and effort to do this because they are the ones you can rely on when you are hit by a crisis or potential crisis caused by fake news. And they are the ones whom may well check the truth of such stories with you before publishing, so your good relationships will have a preventative effect.
Correcting the record can be difficult – and it could possibly cause your supporters to be targeted as well. You can buy ads and get reporters to correct the story, but you may not reach those who believe the false story. Legal action could result in the original story being removed but this may have little impact on its continued availability in the web and elsewhere.
Probably social media is the most difficult source to deal with as more and more people get their news through social media. Over time, social media algorithms could be designed to weed out falsehood or abuse based on the number of incidents flagged by users, and tools could be developed to further empower users.
There is no doubt the techniques used in the recent avalanche of political fake news will also impact on businesses in the future. Communicators need to develop crisis plans to minimize these eventualities and cope with them when they arrive. Healthy stakeholder relationships will be vital for effective response strategies.