Fake news can cause real damage to your business

Newspaper Roll Fake News

As we find ourselves at the end of the Christmas season, a time of profound faith for many, it may be helpful to reflect on what appears to be our modern era of disbelief. Faith in institution has eroded worldwide. From the U.S. to Spain, Gallup World Polls show declining trust in governments. A recent study shows that a minority of the population (40 per cent) in OECD countries trusts their governments. Keep in mind that all the OECD countries are democracies.

Gallup surveys show that the media is doing even worse. From a high of 72 per cent in 1976, Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in polling history, with only 32 per cent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight per cent from last year alone. The BBC reports that 64 per cent of Britons think that the media fail to report all sides of a story. Similar studies show declining trends throughout Europe.

Employers fare little better. In a July, 2016 Harvard Business Review, Karyn Twaronite (EY Global Diversity and Inclusiveness Officer) points out that in a survey of 9,800 full-time workers ages 19 to 68, in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S., that fewer than half (46 per cent) of all surveyed professionals have a “a great deal of trust” in their employers.

Climate of mistrust

In this growing climate of mistrust emerges the year-end story about “fake news.” The debate around fake news has become so large that there are even those who claim it affected the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

The obvious question is, why has fake news become such a prominent issue? The declining trust in traditional sources of information has created a large vacuum. Through social media, new sources have rushed to fill the vacuum. The sources of news have grown from a select few of identifiable origins to potentially billions of unknown, unidentifiable and frequently unaccountable sources. It was not so long ago that news outlets were limited to a few broadcasters and publishers. Everyone knew who they were and could be held accountable either through regulatory oversight or libel laws. The emergence of social media has changed all that.

A Pew Research Center study conducted this year found that a majority of Americans now receive their news from social media. Nearly eight in 10 online Americans use Facebook. Twitter (24 per cent), Pinterest (31 per cent), Instagram (32 per cent) or LinkedIn (29 per cent) have also emerged as major sources of news. Pew’s findings that half of the public turned to these sites to learn about the 2016 presidential race highlight the impact of this phenomenon.

The media landscape

The ability of the globe’s population to speak and learn from one another is a good thing. I can attest to the number of previously unavailable news sites that I find vibrant, insightful and well written, which is not always the case in mainstream media. The fact that social media enables me to circulate this article that you are now reading is, I hope, proof that this new media is not always irredeemably bad.

Yet, there is a far darker side to this trend. There are online sights that knowingly propagate news to destroy individuals, gain commercial advantage or breed hate and contempt. More disturbing is that there are large audiences who accept this fake news as truth. It seems that in this age of disbelief, vast swaths of the population are not prepared to believe anyone yet will believe anything. For example, as discussed in a Mediashift article, the Huffington Post deliberately demonstrated the power of Fake News with the provocative and totally untrue headline “Bernie Sanders could replace Trump with this little known loophole.” The article has over 60,000 shares on Facebook so far.

While it might be tempting to consider fake news trivial, there are some serious risks emerging. These social trends always start at a grand level and quickly work their way down to very specific targets. The subject will soon move from global celebrities and heads of state to the business around the corner and the neighbor across the street. There is every reason to believe that the trend of fake news will only grow more rapidly. Fake news may soon be coming to a person or business near you. So it is worth asking a few questions.

What is fake news?

First, let’s try to say what fake news is not. Reporting news is essentially reporting reality. The same reality can be seen from different perspectives. So if “real news” reports that the glass is half full, it does not mean that a report saying the same glass is half empty is fake news.

On many occasions the news is simply wrong either because all the facts are not known or the journalist did not understand the issues. Life is complicated, especially if you are trying to distill in less than an hour a complex issue – like a leaking nuclear reactor – into 500 words to a general audience. Additionally, many companies and other sources sometimes do a very poor job explaining the issue in a comprehensive and simple fashion. Gobbledygook may be the culprit of many bad articles but it is not Fake News.

To my mind, fake news is something that it is published with malicious intent. It is an article that seeks to destroy a reputation, damage a business or stir irrational anger and hate. Its objective is harm and not news.

How could fake news stories affect you or your business?

Let’s assume that there is suddenly an entirely fictional Internet news piece saying your special event is being held in a dangerous locations; your products contain toxic substances; your business is about to go bankrupt or you are an abusive employer. While not receiving worldwide attention, the nature of social media now allows the story to quickly circulate to all your customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and family. Given the anonymous nature of these stories, there is no one to call demanding a retraction, sue for libel or simply blame. Such an event has the potential of becoming a business and life-defining crisis.

How can you monitor social media to see what is happening?

The quick answer is it is tough to do.

The big social media outlets are working on systems to identify and contain fake news. Short of draconian limits on free speech, it is difficult to see how much it can really be controlled, especially at the micro level of independent businesses and individuals. Tracking applications are under development and worth considering. There are a number of publications that are covering the issue of fake news that are worth viewing on a regular basis.

Short of a comprehensive tracking system, encourage colleagues, employees and friends to keep an eye out. If they do see a fake news story, be sure to ask them to tell you right way. If the story is on a credible site, ask to have it removed.

What if you or your company is the target of a fake news attack?

Keep up-to-date lists of key contacts. If you are the subject of a fake story, you want to reach out to those who are important quickly to let them know what has happened and tell them the true story. It is a difficult call to determine whether such communications should be private through email or on social media. The unhelpful answer is it depends on the individual circumstances. Whatever the case, be prompt. Bad stories do not go away, they just get forwarded.

At the risk of sounding naïve and dangerously old fashioned, a good reputation is still the most effective anecdote to fake news. The Statistical Portal shows a YouGov “trust in advertising” study where 83 per cent of respondents found “recommendations from people I know” trustworthy. In this era of cyber cynicism, 70 per cent founded branded websites trustworthy. The best defense to someone making scurrilous comments is the reader saying, “I know these people, this is not true.” A well thought through and executed brand strategy can be the first wall of defense against fake news.

In the 19th century Mark Twain observed, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” It seems to be a lot more complicated in the 21st century.

About the author:

George Bothwell has spent a career leading marketing and communications strategies to build corporate reputations in North America and Europe. He has acted as the senior marketing and/or communications officer at Bank of Montreal, Barclays Bank and Atomic Energy of Canada. In these capacities, he has held the corporate responsibility for special events including annual meetings, franchisee events, media conferences, financial analysts’ briefings, employee meetings and major sponsorship programs such as the Olympics. He began his career in the Government of Canada where he was Departmental Assistant to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce; Secretary to the Foreign Investment Review Agency; and Vice Consul and Trade Commissioner at the Canadian Consulate in Philadelphia. After leaving the Government of Canada he was Vice President of Communications and Environmental Affairs for Coca-Cola Canada and Director of Packaging for Coca-Cola Europe. He has managed marketing and communications programs in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. During his career he has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Philadelphia, Brussels and London. He currently runs a consulting practice focusing on marketing and communications issues.

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