ITL #262 Fighting misinformation: fake news and the communications industry

2 years, 2 months ago


In today’s ‘Post Truth’ world of alternative facts and social media bots, PR practitioners must commit to honesty and integrity. By Chris Cartwright.

The communications industry is truly at a moment of flux, not to say crisis.

Our traditional ‘channel’ to communicate with our publics – the media – is rapidly being undermined by the rise of fake news, a presumption that news content cannot be trusted. Edelman reports in its latest Trust Barometer that for the first time media is the least trusted institution globally. Sixty-three percent of respondents say they do not know how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods or if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization. Unfortunately, this confusion is amplified by high profile figures such as President Trump accusing even respected news outlets such as the BBC or CNN of being purveyors of fake news.

Our often-repeated communications advice to spokespeople to tell the truth and focus on facts and evidence is undermined by the increased prevalence of wilful lying, and the rise in ‘fake news’.  Trump may accuse the BBC of fake news but PolitiFact, the US fact checking bureau, analysed his election campaign messaging and found 70% of his statements were untrue.   

Trump’s assertion that the crowd at his inauguration was the biggest in history is just one example.  The fact that this lie was described by his advisors as ‘alternative facts’ further muddies the waters: what is true and what is false if facts can have ‘alternatives’?

Clearly using ‘alternative facts’ can have severe consequences, and therefore the phenomenon is far more serious than it seems.  The UK’s Brexit campaigners boldly asserted that the UK would save £350 million a week by leaving the EU and divert this money to the National Health Service.  This was proven to be categorically false but was a key driver to the UK populace voting to leave the EU, arguably the largest political upheaval of the past 50 years.

Beliefs without foundation

What is potentially worrying too, for us communicators, is that as Julie Beck writing in the Atlantic argues, “there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you”.  She cites a famous study where scientists embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but the prophet just kept revising her predictions. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong. 

No wonder that last year two well-known journalists, Evan Davis and Matthew Ancona, both published books on  what they call the ‘Post Truth’ world, another euphemism for the rise of proactive and wilful misrepresentation of the facts. 

Allied to the fake news universe is also what I would loosely call ‘the fake influence’ universe.  We communicators have for some time now been told that we need not depend on the traditional media to reach and influence our target audiences and that we can avoid any ‘fake news’. We can simply use social platforms to engage direct with our audiences. 

We can use our own platforms to become ‘content publishers’ in our own right.  Celebrities were quick to embrace the liberation of disintermediated communications (witness Taylor Swift’s influence on Twitter, 85.6 million followers) …and businesses and politicians have followed. 

Rare is the Communications Director who has not developed a digital strategy, attracted by the opportunity not only to go direct to audiences but also to be able to measure influence and engagement – and also leverage digital ‘influencers’ to reach target audiences.  However, as The New York Times has reported in January, many of the followers that celebrities, pundits, businesses and athletes have are not ‘true followers’ but fake followers. 

The newspaper reports on one shady business that sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers.

A swarm of bots

Add to this that in November last year, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal grey zone.

In summary, we are facing a crisis of trust in institutions, governments and business.  We are also facing a crisis of trust in the media, traditional and social, as a means of getting information to help us decide who to vote for, what to buy, where to invest, what policy to back, who to believe. We simply do not know what or who to believe any more.

How should we as communicators operate in this ‘trust-challenged’ world?  And how should we in the PR consultancy world react to help our clients communicate more effectively?

First, I think we need to rapidly identify information sources that can be trusted. Interestingly in the Edelman research the decline in trust for the media is actually driven primarily by a significant drop in trust in what Edelman calls platforms, notably search engines and social media, so the headline results are confusing. 

In the same research journalism is more trusted than search engines and social media in 21 countries, with some showing a major gap (Germany, 61% trust journalists, 40% search engines and social media).  So I believe we will see a flight back to quality and an increased trust in journalism by  trained, experienced reporters with integrity working for trusted ‘brands’ such as the Economist, BBC, Financial Times, the Guardian and Reuters all of which are, according to the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism research, the most trusted information sources.

This renewed trust in quality journalism will be reflected in the PR consultancy world.  Agencies will need to ensure clients have access to PR consultants who are close to the right reporters, close enough to their subject or their clients’ business, and adroit enough to use the right facts or indeed the right stories that will work in these outlets.  Earned media may be a relatively new term for media relations – but earning the right to have’s one story in the Economist and having the skill to get it there may re-emerge one of the most desirable skills in this post truth world for the new breed of PR consultants.

Flagging up falsehoods

Social media platforms need to take a greater role in blocking fake news and in not proliferating it – a view confirmed by 72% of respondents in research from consultancy Lewis.  Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has committed to several measures to fight fake including: penalizing fake content in News Feed so it's much less likely to spread, better technical systems to detect what people will flag as false before they do it themselves, making it much easier for people to report stories as fake working with respected fact checking organizations, labelling stories that have been flagged as false by third parties or the community, and showing warnings when people read or share them. 

The jury is still out on how effective these steps have been…..but the fact remains that the tech firms themselves need to play a major role in disrupting the spread of misinformation.

Finally, consultancies need to take a more ‘trusted advisor’ role with their clients.  They can do so in many ways.  They need to commit to utter integrity and devotion to the truth with the media. 

As Bell Pottinger’s demise shows, PR firms who misuse social media and sow misinformation are not only highly unethical, these days they are commercially suicidal (Bell Pottinger’s lapse in ethics got it expelled from the PRCA and ultimately the firm went bankrupt as clients deserted it).  Consultancies need to offer channel neutral advice.  They need to get rid of titles like Head of Digital or Head of Media Relations – both of whom sometimes see the answer to client challenges through the prism of their own discipline. 

Instead, clients need advisors who can analyse and assess their challenges and apply a bespoke strategy that works regardless of media used, leveraging the right media relationships with trusted sources, the right relationships with other key stakeholders such as political influencers, or NGOs, or industry bodies, and the right digital strategies to achieve genuine influence. 

Increasingly, these trusted advisors will blend their own skills with other disciplines to advise their clients in this new Post Truth world (analysts, data visualizers, behavioural economists, anthropologists, community experts). Their advisory role increasingly will be to give genuine perspective to clients.

There are no easy answers to solving the crisis of trust in society right now – but what is clear is that PR consultancies can and should play a key role helping clients navigate very stormy waters and partnering with them to ensure their communications remain effective.

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The Author

Chris Cartwright is Managing Director of the Corporate and International Practice at Farner Consulting, Switzerland’s largest communications consultancy. He joined Farner in 2016 from Burson-Marsteller, where he was the managing director of the Geneva office. Previously he headed Burson-Marsteller’s Corporate and Crisis Practice in the UK and also its Technology Practice in Europe, Middle East and Africa. Prior to this, Chris was managing director of Harvard PR, a specialized technology and telecoms agency, before which he held board level positions at agencies Brands2Life, and Bite Communications in London.

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