“Post-truth” became the Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” in 2016, thanks to the U.S. presidential election. Barely a day goes by now without one being greeted by the words “fake” and “news” in some combination while reading newspapers or information online.
While misinformation is an age-old problem, the internet and digital technologies have turned it into a new threat to business, media, government and democratic societies. Communication professionals are facing unprecedented challenges in today’s information war. Fake news is deliberately used as a weapon to fabricate and distribute false information for ideological and/or financial gains. But is it “mission impossible” to combat ubiquitous fake news in our highly networked, social media-obsessed world?
Hard to define
It is difficult to define what exactly fake news is: Falsehoods? Misinformation? Hoaxes? Newfangled propaganda? Biased media reports? Malicious information from competitors? Or simply anything that one doesn’t like? As the director of FactCheck.org pointed out in an interview with Bloomberg News, many questionable stories are not entirely false, and have the kernels of truth even if they are misleadingly phrased. Someone can always find grey zones between facts and fictions, realities and perceptions, truths and “truthiness.”
Hard to stop
Multiple factors make it harder to contain fake news than before. Technologies have not only facilitated its proliferation, but algorithms tend to reward jokes, novelty, sensational commentaries, or anything leading to “shareability.” Supported by technologies, the fake news industry has emerged in a variety of ways, such as the surge of clickbait websites. The more people click a post, the more money those fake news sites earn.
On the other hand, traditional journalists are under time pressure to compete with new media, and are thus often forced to skip conventional information processing. News consumers, especially those with “mental shortcuts” (who digest content without doing additional research to verify it) or “confirmation bias” (who only believe information that affirms pre-existing beliefs), can be easily lured into believing and circulating fake news.
No easy fix
There is no easy fix, although various efforts are being made. For example, the News Integrity Initiative is a newly founded global consortium aimed at strengthening trust in journalism and advancing news literacy among the public. Facebook has launched a function called Related Articles to provide readers with access to the results of fact-checking of original stories. Google digital news is designed to help users verify information themselves with Factmata. Even though these companies claim that their current algorithms detect fake news, technologies have yet to be developed that recognize fake news without human intervention. Fake news producers could also find another means to continue, creating a loop in which those who want to avoid fake news are playing catch up.
A self-empowered path
Instead of hoping for external interventions (e.g., technological advancement, public education, regulation, censorship), a proactive, self-empowered approach and a how-to guide can help organizations combat fake news and protect their reputations.
In my work on a project with a New York-headquartered public relations consultancy, we established a Professional Practices Committee, consisting of employees, clients, independent former journalists, academics, and thought leaders. The committee serves as professional guides to both employees and clients on how to prepare for the challenges from the new fake news environment.
Our methodology involves doing a series of in-depth case studies drawn from around the globe to scrutinize the nuances of different types of fake news, such as CNN airing 30-minutes of pornography (hoax), Coca-Cola recalling Dasani water products (falsehood), and Beef Products Inc. (BPI) suing ABC News (defamation). Analyses included content analysis of media coverage about the case studies, and corporate responses and official statements. My findings suggest the following advice about self-empowerment for global managers and communication professionals.
Always do your due diligence
Beyond rhetorical responses to fake news, companies should always do due diligence to verify news sources and build everyday relationships. Verifying news sources requires investigating the origin of news, the veracity of content, and the channels of distribution. Quality relationships with a wide range of stakeholders help companies to weather unexpected crises of fake news. A set of comprehensive media strategies should be in place, including:
- Building trust with credible mainstream media.
- Leveraging resources from fact-checking websites (e.g., Snopes.com, FactCherk.org).
- Compiling a watch list of clickbait sites.
- Collaborating with citizen journalists, bloggers, and influencers.
Deliver authentic communication
Authentic communication requires telling the truth about organizations, whether good or bad. Confront fake news with clarification and drive it through social media platforms. Even if the company is in an ambiguous and tricky situation, take a stance, articulate your position, and be frank with the public. Some tips of delivering authentic communication:
- Present facts by vivid means such as storytelling, infographics, and factsheets.
- Provide warnings about potential threats or risks associated with products.
- Emphasize corporate mission and values in credible publicity.
Proactively manage issues
It is hard to predict when and what fake news could burst out, we communication professionals need to monitor, identify and manage issues proactively. This entails watching social media closely, checking hashtags, and searching what is being said about your company. Communication professionals need to know not only what is going on and what could go wrong, but also how publics perceive and feel about issues. Two forward-thinking steps to take are:
- Brief stakeholders about any issues that could be picked up by fake news makers.
- Prepare counter-arguments to explain those common flaws of fake news (e.g., fact versus myth, oversimplification, quoting out of context, jumping to conclusions).
Investing in developing public relations literacy
To wage war against fake news, companies need to invest in developing what researchers Sherry Holladay and Timothy Coombs, in their article “Public Relations Literacy: Developing critical consumers of public relations,” call “public relations literacy,” which is similar to media or news literacy. While media and news literacy equip people with knowledge and skills to discern fake news, public relations literacy empowers employees to identify what good or bad, ethical or unethical public relations is, and pick up the most effective tools to combat fake news and protect organizational reputation. Some examples of having a high level of public relations literacy in the fake news era:
- Creative digital storytelling by presenting both facts and emotional appeals in content.
- Embracing diverse voices and confronting legitimate opposing viewpoints on a regular basis.
- Leading to establish narratives to accurately inform public beyond just responding to “alternative facts.”
It’s time for communication professionals to use these tools to turn the tide and make a difference in our businesses and societies.