The emergence of social media and the Internet as a whole has opened the floodgates to a deluge of information, both false and true. This would not be problem if we lived in a society where everyone had a habit of skeptical thinking and critical inquiry, but considering the fact that as much as 63 percent of the people can’t distinguish facts from fiction in the media, people can be easily made to believe blatant lies to their own detriment, and to that of society as a whole.
The implications of fake news are extremely broad, and a complete coverage isn’t possible in a short space. So, in this article, I’ll focus on what fake news means for one particular sector where it can have interesting consequences: the PR industry.
Fake news and conspiracy theories in social media
9/11 was an inside job; vaccines cause autism; the earth is flat; moon landing was a hoax; chemtrails—the list goes on and on. I won’t be taking on the role of a debunker of these theories here, but the number of people that seem to believe in these is alarming.
YouTube is full of videos on these subjects, which have received thousands of likes and comments. The same is true of Facebook.
Belief in conspiracy theories and fake news has increased to a level that it has become a proper subculture.
The openness of social media serves as the perfect platform for people sharing similar beliefs to come together and actively discuss the nefarious plans of the government/pharma industry to disable people with harmful vaccines.
Social media companies like Facebook and YouTube have recognized the problem of fake news and unscientific stories spreading like wildfire on their platforms, but we are yet to see any definite action against the promotion of such articles on social media.
I’m inclined to feel empathetic to social media companies about this issue because of the dilemma it presents. If they start regulating content shared by users, this could be seen as companies exercising censorship and an attack on freedom of expression, which goes completely against the very principles that Zuckerberg and his social media counterparts have espoused since the beginning.
But leaving the situation unregulated and unmoderated can promote belief in harmless falsehoods in the best case and prove to be fatalin the worst case scenario.
This “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation clearly isn’t very easy to deal with for social media companies.
But the people running social media aren’t faultless in this informational crisis. Both Facebook and YouTube, for instance, have a partiality towards content lacking any scientific basis as opposed to well-researched and scientifically credible articles.
The Guardian demonstrated how social media search engines like Facebook and YouTube promote content pushing anti-vaccination propaganda, but science-backed articles trail on the bottom.
Furthermore, the way social media algorithms work poses an additional challenge to the fight against fake news because content that receives more shares and interaction is naturally promoted more strongly by these algorithms.
And guess what kind of content generates more interest? Lies.
An MIT study found that fake news is more than 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. These high interaction signals are immediately picked up by algorithms, which then leads directly to the drowning out of factual content by misinformation.
This problem is likely to persist until social media tweaks its inner-workings and start rewarding factual content with promotion, and penalizing false stories by sticking it at the bottom.
If we can’t outright remove false content, the above approach could at least be tried for the time being until more effective solutions are found.
With the credibility of social media already damaged by the exploits of Zuckerberg and co., which is actually leading people to look for privacy-enhancing tools such as a Windows VPN and other devices, it is high time that Facebook and other platforms take immediate actions to curb lies circulating on the web and win some of our trust back.
Implications for the PR industry
The role of PR professionals in promoting brand image and thus the trust people have in their brand has sharply risen in importance amidst the phenomenon of fake news pervasiveness.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry. In fact, if anything, the spread of fake news and the resulting general mistrust of society puts more pressure on you to prepare well-researched stories to communicate to audiences, lest you are caught making factual errors.
Professionals will thus be compelled to adopt a high degree of cautiousness in their pitching process and increased emphasis on fact-checking will ultimately improve the accuracy of story-telling, giving the much-needed trust boost that brands need today to build their reputation and positive image in society.
At the same time, you must be prepared to deal with the impact of fake news that might be targeted against your brand. For instance, the anti-vaccination movement is causing people to distrust the pharmaceutical industry. The PR department in pharma companies must therefore intelligently tackle this issue and respond to the propaganda with the release of evidence-backed statements that the average person can assimilate.
As such, the increasing volume of fake news doesn’t really change the core responsibility of PR professionals, which is to communicate effectively and truthfully with their audiences. The only difference is that the margin of error is smaller now for PR and the importance of being rigorous in their pitches and publications is higher than ever before.
Social media has played an extremely disappointing and, one may even say a destructive, role in regard to the propagation of fake news and the demotion of fact-based articles. The detrimental effects of fake news have far-reaching consequences for society in general as well as the corporate world, placing great demands on PR to dispel the falsehoods attacking their brands with well-developed responses.
But if PR deals with this challenge cautiously, it can be converted into a great opportunity to win the trust of community in their brand by ensuring rigorousness in publications and all communications with audiences, which after all has always been the ultimate goal of all PR activities.