2016 could rightly be declared the year of fake news. It was the year that the proliferation of fake news hit the roof, especially during the American presidential elections. It was also the year that the world realized how powerful it could be in shaping public opinion and public understanding of the world. It is very tempting to believe that fake news tipped the balance in the presidential elections in favour of Donald Trump.

What is Fake News?

Fake news is not news at all. It is fabricated information published to mislead or manipulate others to the financial or political advantage of the publishers.

Wikipedia defines it as a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation (false information) be it via the traditional print or broadcast news media or via internet-based social media.

Some scholars believe that there are two categories of fake news, namely:

the kind that seeks to manipulate people, spread misinformation and cast doubt on traditional media and public institutions, and the kind that uses sensation and false stories to attract substantial readership in order to make money through advertising.

What is the Role of Social Media?

There is a consensus of opinion that fake news has always been with us, but it is social media that has made its spread easier and its impact monumental. For instance, Buzzfeed analysis showed that fake elections news during the American presidential election produced more engagements on Facebook than the stories from the biggest mainstream news sites during the last three months of the campaign. Fake news stories delivered 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments compared to 7.3 million for mainstream news combined.

It is becoming a matter of serious concern that lies and made-up stories are becoming so pervasive online, especially on the social media. Of particular concern is the so-called “echo chamber effect”, a situation in which platforms such as Facebook serve users with news, fake or otherwise, that reflect their opinions. Its algorithms filter the news and this has prompted calls for its adjustments to accommodate a greater diversity of opinion and information.

Tech giants accused of spreading fake news are not taking the matter with kid gloves. Google has banned websites that use the “Co” domain to mimic the “Com” domains in order to mislead potential readers. It has also prevented fake news websites from using its Adsense Advertising Network. Facebook also banished perpetual publishers of false information from its lucrative advertising network, Audience Network Ads. A group of tech leaders including Facebook and Mozilla have also launched what they call the News Integrity Initiative, which is to be administered by the Cunny Graduate School of Journalism. The Aim: to combat the declining trust in the news media and advance news literacy.

Why Fake News Work

IPSOs Public Affairs and Buzzfeed News revealed that fake news headlines about the American Presidential elections “fooled” American adults around 75% of the times. This raises an important question: why is fake news so effective?

Fake news works because it taps into the basic human instincts. Made-up stories or fake news always try to solicit fear, anger, and tribal loyalty.

People are likely to share fake news which raises fear about human survival. The same can be said of a matter which elicits our anger. Posts by family members, friends, co-workers, club and church members are more likely to be shared than posts from people we don’t know.

Writing in Havard Business Review Nigel Nicholson stated: “Homo Sapiens emerged on the Savannah Plain some 200,000 years ago; yet, according to evolutionary psychology, people today still seek those traits that made survival possible: an instinct to fight furiously when threatened and a drive to trade information and share secrets.”

In his recent book, A field guide to lies: Critical thinking in the Information Age, Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, explains that humans have an evolutionary tendency toward gullibility and wanting to believe what people are telling them: “We evolved as a species, from where the information you get from your kinmate was reliable and you didn’t have to deal with huge numbers and statistics”.

He also identified “motivated reasoning”, the idea that we are motivated to believe what confirms our opinion as another reason lies or fake news thrive.

Impact of Fake News on Public Relations

Fake news is certainly something Public Relations professionals should worry about. It eats at the very foundation of Public Relations and threatens the reputation of the organizations we serve.

Fake news damages the trust people have in all the media, both new and traditional. PR depends on the mainstream media to give credibility to its stories through third party endorsement, without it PR stories have no value and the purpose for which those stories were placed is defeated.

It has made the work of Public Relations more complex. We have no option but to add new tools to our reputation management playbook, as corporate bodies are becoming the targets of fake news.

Pepsicos case is still fresh. In 2016, Trump supporters called for a boycott of Pepsi products just because the CEO, Indra Nooyi was intentionally misquoted by a fake news website, Conservative Treehouse as saying that Trump Supporters should “take their  business elsewhere”; whereas, the lady only frowned at the ugly rhetoric of the campaign and called on all Americans to come together: “I had to answer a lot of questions from my daughters, from my employees, they are all in mourning.” “The election is over. I think we should mourn for those of us who supported the other side. But we have to come together and life has to go on”.

This is a pointer to more fake news troubles in the corporate world. PR practitioners will have to gird their loins for more anti-corporate activism, unsavoury union tactics, competitive harassment, dissatisfied shareholders, and unethical stock traders.

What Can We Do?

Gini Dietrich offers very practical ways PR and communication professionals can effectively manage fake news troubles in any organization:

  1. Prepare a crisis response micro site.

Create a process for deploying the micro site as quickly as possible. Ensure it is deployed in a way that anyone on the crisis communication team can quickly and easily update content as the situation evolves. Don’t get on a Twitter debate. A micro site is a perfect vehicle.

  1. Create a fake news playbook.

Think through different scenarios. Work with your crisis communication team to document the tactics you’ll employ when it happens. Identify what the escalation points are in each scenario, who is responsible for owning the response, and how you will communicate. Keep emphasis on speed. Involve your legal and compliance teams in the planning process, ensure they are in agreement with the plan and will make themselves available for expedited reviews or consultation.

  1. Build a community that will defend your brand

Your community of brand advocate will help you combat fake news. They’ll respond and debunk fake news shared on social media. Build relationships with journalists and influencers in advance. They will help you fight fake news.

Fake news has come to stay, as unbridled human appetite for them seems to know no bounds. All we need to do as PR professionals is anticipate and identify what could happen, prepare for it and get to work, as quickly as practicable, when it rears its ugly head.