A quote from John Le Carré famously asserts that “The greatest single enemy is the misuse of information, the perversion of truth in the hands of terribly skilful people”. This has never been more salient than in the current era of social media, viral information, bots and online conspiracy theories, but the misuse of information no longer requires the involvement of terribly skilful people to have a significant and lasting impact. Indeed, the very definition of misinformation, provided by the Ethical Journalism Network, is information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm. But when misinformation is widely shared online, it can become difficult to stem its flow and halt the damage it causes.
In the past few years, social media companies have stepped up their efforts to combat the proliferation of fake news. Initially, they enlisted professional fact-checkers to identify false content. More recently, they have been labelling posts as containing potentially misleading content, and in recent weeks we have seen outright banning. This has led to criticism from some who see it as a move towards censorship and against free speech. Others see these actions as nothing more than reactive public relations moves on the part of the social media platforms, rather than a reflection of a genuine desire to change their operations. There are calls for social media companies to collaborate with outside experts to find a better solution, but for now fake news remains a growing problem.
Identifying the type of fake news
Left circulating and unchecked, false online information can be incredibly damaging to companies’ reputations and the bottom line. For public companies the cost is particularly tangible, as evidenced by multiple examples of share prices dropping after fake news about companies is published and shared.
Containing the spread of fake news against your company really is a race against time, so having a tested crisis communications plan and an early alert system in place is crucial. Putting resilient pre-emptive measures in place, such as monitoring and regular trawls of social and traditional media, can enable you to identify items of content online that have the potential to be stitched together to create a false and harmful narrative.
Once a threat is confirmed, the most critical immediate action is monitoring. This helps identify the information and enables you to understand the problem you face, while also tracking the spread. Fake news, and the discourse surrounding it, falls into one or more of the following categories: misinformation, which is false but not created with the intention of causing harm; disinformation, which is false and deliberately created to harm; and the more insidious malinformation, which is information based on reality but used to inflict harm. Identifying which category the fake news falls into will shed light on its origins and inform your response. Has it been deliberately crafted to attack your brand? Is a fact being twisted by an opponent and used against the company? Or is it simply a misunderstanding?
Considering whether, when and how to respond
The intensity of any response should always be carefully measured – in some cases, making a statement could serve only to attract more attention to the issue. Before speaking out, consider whether the need to rebut a claim outweighs the likelihood of needlessly amplifying the falsehood by spreading it further or introducing it to new audiences. It may be better to say nothing at all.
If you do decide to speak out, act quickly and with great clarity, weaving a rebuttal into an engaging corporate narrative in a way that reinforces your company’s authority on the subject. Disinformation experts warn that because of the way individuals process information – responding to narratives rather than statements of fact – rebutting fake news by simply stating the correct information will not always change people’s minds.
Depending on the severity of the claims and how far the content has spread, your response may need to go beyond a formal press release published on your own controlled channels. Additional media and touchpoints, such as videos of spokespeople presenting rebuttals, and microsites dedicated to the issue, may help you reach and engage with stakeholders who do not respond to traditional platforms.
Some fake news attacks can require offensive action, such as requesting that pages hosting false claims are taken offline, or bot accounts are shut down. More sophisticated attacks may even include the creation of fake websites and social media accounts designed to look official – trawling the internet will enable you to identify these. Even after a fake news outbreak has been debunked, it is vital to keep track of any new activity, so keep monitoring switched on to ensure you are receiving timely alerts of any developments.
Once the critical period of activity is over, a review of the crisis and the response may identify areas for improvement. This is a good time to fine-tune the scope of your monitoring and update your crisis communications plan. Reviewing your corporate narrative to identify any blind spots that could still be exploited can ensure you are well-prepared to handle the next fake news crisis.
It is safe to say that fake news and misinformation are not going to disappear soon – if anything, they are likely to become more prevalent. Social media, online communities and technical advancements all make it easier than ever for purveyors of fake news to spread their messages. It is more important than ever for companies to equip themselves to deal with fake news that has the potential to damage their reputation, their business and their bottom line. By ensuring you have a well-constructed corporate narrative to refer to, monitoring online content and being aware of fake news as it appears, as well as understanding when and how best to respond, you can ensure you are in the best position to minimise damage and dismantle any narrative that is used against you and your company.