Fake News and PR
The scale of the problem
NewsGuard UK Managing Director Alex Cadier says fake news is not a new phenomenon, with the earliest reference he can find dating back to 1688 when King James II delivered a proclamation to stop the spreading of “false news”. He adds: “It’s definitely been a problem for quite a while but, with the internet and social media, it’s had a big scale up and access shift which has made it a much broader problem.”
Cadier argues the internet has been the catalyst behind the spread of fake news, with social media responsible for amplifying it even further. People no longer need to pay for a newspaper, which is legally obliged to publish correct information, but can now go online where they can read and share information that may or may not be true. He says: “The flipside of that is on the one hand the great thing is anyone and everyone can be a journalist, the problem is anyone and everyone can be a journalist. It is a real double-edged sword the way the internet has transformed the way we consumer information.”
Additional problems come in the fact that because the fake news sites are free, they are easily accessible, while the lack of any responsibility to publish correct facts means the sites are unlikely to change false stories. Websites claiming to deal in accurate news can also use any number of tricks to make their sites look legitimate, while social media platforms can further enhance their legitimacy by doing enough to ensure the veracity of the content that users are consuming.
Cadier says: “The scale of it wasn’t inevitable, the fact that there will be misinformation out there is inevitable and while some it can be mistakes, other (misinformation) will be (published by) malicious actors.”
Covid 19 and fake news
Cadier says Covid proved to be particularly fertile ground for the spread of fake news because of the initial vacuum of information. This proved to be important as he believes it is part of human nature to warn other people about dangers, meaning in the absence of any scientific facts, false narratives can quickly gain a powerful grip on the public.
He adds Covid was particularly fertile ground because with little known about the virus in the early stages, any website claiming to provide answers proved popular. “People are drawn to these websites, they give false solutions but they appear to give solutions and answers to questions that remain unanswered,” he says.
Cadier also believes that fake news is well equipped in dealing with the fluid change of information, noting that much of it changed from claiming that Covid is harmless initially to questioning the nature of the vaccines once they were being rolled out to the global population. He adds: “There’s a novelty aspect there, vaccines attract disinformation simply because there might not be the best level of public understanding about the science behind it sometimes.”
This scientific suspicion was compounded by the speed with which the vaccines were rolled out, with explanations behind why regulators might have changed their practices in the face of a worldwide being demanded. While Cadier says the scientific community should be credited for spotting the anti-vaccine narrative early and countering it as much as possible, there are inevitably going to be people who will instead choose to believe fake news.
Cadier adds while people can have their own motives for believing in fake news, there is a big reason as to why some people are so keen to spread it – money. He says about $2.6 billion is spent annually on adverts on fake news websites which can prove to be incredibly popular, adding: “There’s money to be made now with these websites that drive a lot of traffic spreading false information because they play on those fears and they play on those emotions. They take advantage of the fact that there is a vacuum of information as we are still learning about those things.”
The problem snowballs even further as many trusted brands do not realise where their adverts – which further legitimise the site they appear on – are being placed. Cadier says: “It wasn’t a problem pre-social media and pre-internet that we had to deal with and so it’s still a relatively new problem.”
The war in Ukraine and fake news
Cadier says while the financial motivations to spread misinformation are strong, he makes a further distinction for disinformation which he describes as “the proactive use of information in a malicious way”. He argues the best example for this currently is how the Kremlin has tried to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine by claiming the invasion is really an attempt to end a genocide in Eastern Ukraine overseen by a governing neo-Nazi junta.
This disinformation can then be shared by both traditional publishers – for instance RT or Sputnik – but is again further boosted by social media, which also allows media outlets to pretend they are not funded by the Russian government even if they are. “All of the structure and the standards that you expect from journalism, all of that is gone,” Cadier says.
He also makes the point that regardless of what the misinformation or disinformation is, the methods of spreading it remain the same with algorithms on social media platforms spreading the and promoting some of this content, not because it is true but because it generates clicks and engagement.
TikTok and fake news
While social media provides a lot of fake news content, Cadier singles out TikTok for being particularly bad in spreading it. He says a NewsGuard report in 2021 showed how children as young as nine were fed Covid anti-vaccine content within 35 minutes of joining the service and despite not having searched for it.
Cadier says this is because, unlike other social media, you do not have to join a group or follow an account, to start having content recommended. Instead, content is fed to you according to your actions on it thanks to the highly sensitive, user-facing algorithm which traces everything a user does.
PRs and fake news
Fake news on social media can prove particularly problematic for PRs Cadier says, as it can be incredibly difficult to contact someone to remove content from the offending platform which is often both unregulated and uncontrolled. This makes correcting a false story much harder than simply contacting the reporter, whose by-line will be published by the story in a traditional newspaper or website.
Instead, Cadier is urging PRs to be far more proactive and search for the misinformation narratives that are already being peddled online. Understanding these lies gives PRs a better chance of futureproofing their message by tailoring it to take account of any existing misinformation. Reliable information backed up by experts will also help counter fake news, while also knowing when and where to fight the narrative is important. He also argues traditional media outlets also have a vested interest in making sure the correct news is published and will be keen to help.
Cadier also hopes the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill, which is currently working its way through Parliament having been introduced to the House of Commons in March, 2021, will help the fight as it seeks to crack down on bad behaviour online.
He also urges PRs to treat every threat seriously, even if it is a piece of fake news posted on an obvious crank website. Cadier says: “All of the biggest conspiracy theories started on websites where you and I would go ‘no-one is going to listen to this’, but the message is amended, it’s made more amenable and suddenly you have a huge PR crisis on hand.”
Cadier adds PRs can get their clients or employers to assist in the process by ensuring they have plenty of transparent and reliable information to hand. He says this was well demonstrated with the Covid vaccines, when a mixture of both public- and private-sector PR was able to reassure most of the public about the safety of the programme. He urges any PR to be thinking ahead and ensuring they have the relevant information to hand from a company that is fully on board with the need react immediately problems flare up, rather than “having nothing when a crisis just comes out of nowhere”.
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