Combating the “Fake News” Epidemic

WE Communications Blog: Technology

— Mimi Newman 

Fake news: a tale as old as time, or a new societal ill? Propaganda, rumors, censorship and speculation are nothing new, and have been around since the first printing press. However, what defines “fake news” and what impact does it have on businesses?

Recently, I attended a panel hosted by the New York Daily News Innovation Lab that sought to answer these questions. Discussion centered on the scale and potential harm of fake news. Fueled by the ability to publish stories quickly to the internet, which then spreads to sympathetic audiences via social media, the “fake news” of today causes immediate and significant impact, be it with an election or in a corporate crisis.We also see the phrase “fake news” used by politicians as a weapon in information and culture wars — deflecting accurately reported coverage as “fake news” simply because it’s unflattering.

A few of the key discussion points included:

  • “Fake news” is less about reality, and more about a culture and information war lead by zealots who genuinely believe their agenda is right. A point of view or a rumor is published by a partisan blog, and “facts” aren’t important — because “it might as well be true.” Facts are essentially negotiable in this high-velocity media environment.
  • This dynamic is also fueled by how social media platforms deemphasize the sources of content in favor of headlines and hero images, incentivizing viral sharing. As such, Pew has found that fewer than 60 percent of consumers can recall in what publication they read a particular story.
  • Social media platforms will have to find incentive outside profit or shareholder pressure to combat fake news, but with a Trump presidency, we could see a more laissez-faire regulatory environment that enables social media platforms to continue their focus on ad-driven revenue models with less regard for social consequences.
  • Last, photo-, video- and voice-editing software is increasingly sophisticated — enough so that in the future it will be increasingly difficult to differentiate manufactured content versus real or live content.

This last point — the increasing sophistication of “fake news” production — should give corporate communications teams pause. Currently, “fake news” lives largely in the realm of political campaigns and ideological culture wars, but what’s to say that “fake news” won’t surface in the corporate world in the future? In the past, we have seen activists create near-identical press materials from companies to ladder up to their activist agenda. “Fake news” could become a tactic utilized by competing companies to deposition another company’s product or service. Politicians could leverage “fake news” to pinpoint companies’ practices for their gain or to comply with a given policy they are seeking to enact.

How should companies respond to this change in the media landscape?

The changes that newsrooms and readers saw as the internet and social media took over — the shift from a top-down dissemination of information to peer-to-peer, blog-generated quick-turn content — precipitated and enabled the “fake news” epidemic. When this shift happened, public relations pros learned to adjust listening and monitoring practices. Time will tell, but with this shift toward an increasingly fluid definition of “the truth,” crisis and reactive communications preparation plans should also pivot. Crisis preparedness should be oriented not just to how a company will deal with a large catastrophic event, but how to quickly and nimbly deal with smaller issues or inaccuracies in “reporting” from less-than-reliable outlets. As we’ve seen play out, a “fake news”-type article can spread quickly through social media without regard to source of publication; crisis monitoring should pay attention to established and nontraditional outlets alike.

Moreover, companies should pay attention to not only block and tackle reputation management tactics, but also to how they participate in larger “black swan” events that completely sweep up a cultural narrative — see Uber’s involvement in the travel ban recently — and be sensitive to how they involve themselves in these moments. Whether you’re a big tech brand in Seattle or an emerging tech startup in New York, misinformation spreads quickly in today’s media environment, and a company can quickly get caught in a web of misunderstanding if it takes a stand or makes a decision early on in these types of moments, which can have a material effect on their business.

We do have a way out of this “fake news” conundrum.

As we saw in the early 2000s with the spam email epidemic, through filtering technology and manual reporting, consumers saw drastically less spam hit their email inboxes; we are seeing social media platforms leverage this type of technology to filter and flag fake news on social media. Mark Zuckerberg has written that he sees Facebook as an important tool in driving civil discourse, and this type of leadership is paramount to solving this issue.

Last, we not only can tackle this problem, but also we as citizens must do so — we have a moral imperative to do so.

As communicators and media relations practitioners, our roles are symbiotic with a free and open press (read more of our tips for communications pros working in this new political climate). We have the opportunity to support a free press by counseling our clients to promote and protect their brands, but also support fair and accurate media coverage, even when it’s tough to swallow. PR agencies by definition seek to get coverage and drive conversation about their clients, but must also advocate for the needs and role of a free and open fourth estate with clients alike.

An informed, media-literate citizenry should be able to understand a reputable story and make its own conclusions about the validity of an article, and concerned citizens, teachers, parents and community leaders can help lead this charge by speaking up.


Connect with the author, Mimi Newman on Twitter.