Fake news has been around for many years. Just visit Snopes.com, a site that debunks or validates viral news stories. You’ll find a vast archive of alternative facts going back decades. (Al Gore did not claim to have invented the internet, for example.) But something has changed recently. Fake news has become more than just a harmless annoyance. It is almost certain that the circulation of fake news had an impact on the 2016 election. It is also likely to have an effect on the practice of PR itself.
What is “Fake News?”
Robin Rothberg, Senior Lecturer, Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte, defined fake news this way in the PRSA Open Forum, “Fake news is blatantly false or misleadingly exaggerated information presented as true via a purportedly trustworthy media source.” While Rothberg limits the definition to intentional dishonesty, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson, also warns about “bad” news. “The fictions and fabrications that comprise fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also encompasses many forms of shoddy, unresearched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone.”
Why is “Fake News” so Prevalent in 2017?
There are three factors that have created the perfect storm for fake news.
1 – Creating False or Misleading Stories is Cheap and Easy
In the days before the internet and social media, there were many logistical and cost barriers to those who would have liked to create and distribute fake news for personal gain or political malfeasance. It’s a major endeavor to run a physical newspaper, for example. Publishers vet the content of non-fiction books before they agree to distribute them. It’s not that easy to get a TV show. But these days, there is almost no bar to getting stories published whether they are accurate or not. It is inexpensive, quick and easy to create a website that looks like a legitimate media organization. Almost anyone can do it without the pesky interference of editors, publishers, and fact-checkers.
2 – Social Media Does the Heavy Lifting
Social media can do the work of spreading the message for free. Facebook alone has over 1.86 billion monthly active users. Karen Lane, group managing director of agency Plus 1 Communications, told PRmoment.com, “Social media has exacerbated the problem as it gives false stories an even greater platform to spread quickly and universally. This reached a height during the Brexit referendum in Britain and the presidential campaign in the US, so much so that both Google and Facebook have announced a crackdown on fake news stories from their networks.”
An astonishing number of people rely on social media for their news. A Pew Research survey this year reported 62% of adults get news on social media, and 18% do so often. Two-thirds of Facebook users get news on the site, and six in 10 get news on Twitter.
3 – Social Division and Confirmation Bias
America is deeply divided by political party, economic status, geography, race, and gender. While there have always been disagreements about fiscal or social policy, these days it can be difficult to reach consensus on basic ideas like science, economics, history, and math. This helps fuel the spread of fake news because people love to consume and amplify content that confirms their world view. When we see a headline that reflects what we already believe, we tend to trust in the credibility of that content without an objective review of its legitimacy. We share that content with people who have a similar value system, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and they ….
This helps explain why analysis by BuzzFeed News found that fake election news significantly outperformed real news stories. The top 20 fake stories received more than 8.7 million interactions (Facebook shares, reactions, comments) versus the 20 best-performing pieces from traditional news websites, which received 7.3 million interactions.
What’s the Problem for PR?
Fake news is a real problem for PR because it is eroding trust in all media. PR professionals covet earned media because people don’t tend to trust information that comes directly from brands. In the past, earned media has added credibility to a brand’s story and worked to gain the confidence of potential buyers. But what happens when the media has no credibility to offer?
According to Gallup, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”
When the public stops trusting all news, the value of earned media is effectively negated.
What Steps can PR Pros Take?
None of us alone can stop the avalanche of fake news, but there are a few things that PR professionals and brands can do to help stem the tide and restore faith in traditional, legitimate information sources.
- Don’t spread fake news. It is incumbent on all of us to avoid being part of the problem. Check the credibility of any source of news before you share it. Question content, even if you would like it to be true. Look for primary sources. If a news story says that Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill to drown every kitten in America, find the text of the bill on a government website before you share it.
- Support efforts to weed out fake news. Both Google and Facebook are so alarmed by this trend that they are working to find ways to flag or filter potentially fake news. It is in the best interest of PR pros to support this effort.
- Don’t advertise on fake news websites. You probably would not intentionally advertise on a website that is full of fake news, but you may be doing it inadvertently. The digital advertising network you use to re-target website visitors, for example, may very well have ads running on sites with fake news or other objectionable material. You can ask your network to blacklist sites that are adding to the problem.
- Be a good resource for real news. Provide journalists and influencers with accurate and timely information that they can share. Wherever possible offer documentation and support for the statements you make. Hold the line between putting a spin on information and inviting people to look at facts in a different way, which is part of your job, and just plain making stuff up or making wild exaggerations.
- Watch out for fake news directed at your brand. Fake news isn’t limited to politics. (Did you hear that symbols embossed on the exterior surfaces of Oreo cookies link the product to the alleged conspiratorial activities of the Knights Templar and Freemasons?) Careful media monitoring and reputation management are essential to identifying any fake news that crops up about your brand and nipping it in the bud.
I’m not sure, as some have suggested, that we are living in a post-truth world, but alternative facts and fake news are very real threats to the trust that legitimate media outlets and truthful brands have been working to develop with the public. Hopefully the open discussion of the problem will help people learn to be more careful about what they consume and share. In the meanwhile, we should all strive to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
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