Fake news is fast becoming Donald Trump’s most used phrase but what is fake news, why is it a thing and is it relevant to PR?
First of all, it’s important to know the difference between satire and fake news. Satirical news outlets like The Onion and Private-Eye are intentionally ludicrous and absurd in their portrayal of news stories, and are not trying to convince the audience that what they are saying is the truth.
On the other hand, fake news sites have the intention of misleading the audience into believing the news is real. The real danger comes when news stories are taken out of context or are ‘a bit fake’. They include some fact and some fiction with the two blurring into one another.
What is fake news?
Until recently there was news – stories about people, places and world events based on facts, and not news – anecdotes, tall-tales and trivia.
Then came along fake news, stories invented to resemble credible news stories, published on websites which are designed specifically to resemble credible news outlets.
The overall motive would appear to be greed. Fake news sites generate income, credibility or the joy of deception for its creators. The more sensationalist the story, the more people are likely to click through. Clickbait fever is right at the heart of the fake news emergence.
Fake news and PR
But why does this matter for the world of PR?
Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. It’s a statement, so eloquently put, that forms the basis of worry for brands and companies and their various PR people.
It’s hard enough building reputations and managing crises, without having to put out fires from stories that aren’t even true.
Fake news becomes a problem in PR if it manages to damage reputations. Trust is hard earned and easily squandered and if consumers are influenced to boycott companies for invalid reasons or develop an opinion based on a lie, it becomes a giant thorn in the side for brands, organisations and businesses.
Fake news, and stories with little regard for the truth, can undermine the authority of online news and the trust placed in it. Fake news websites post fabricated stories which impersonate recognised sources, this can make users weary of online news and cautious of a click-through. Although it is unlikely that millions of people will believe every fake news article there is the likelihood of a more subtle effect – people being less likely to believe the information they’re receiving, whether it be real or fake. This poses an obvious problem for PR.
What can be done?
The fight against fake news is on! Tim Berners-Lee, the internet’s dad, has called on big online names such as Google and Facebook to help tackle the problem. In response, Facebook has started to roll out alerts which flag disputed stories to a network of fact-checkers. Stories found to be intentionally misleading will be removed and we should see a decrease in the fake news stories that find their way on to our Facebook feed.
In the meantime, avoiding fake news is relatively easy if you limit your consumption of news to credible sources such as the BBC. By making sure you’ve properly read content before you share it and by not taking everything you read on social media as gospel, you stand a pretty good chance of ‘keeping it real’.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
There is no need to run for the hills and barricade yourself away from all news just yet. PR companies needn’t live in fear of social media sensationalism derailing their hard work.
Research from Gorkana suggests that people in the UK are sceptical to say the least when it comes to consuming media. Especially so on social media as it led the way in the distrust stakes: only 18% of those surveyed noted Facebook as trustworthy and 17% noting Twitter as a trusted source.
This considered, the momentum of fake news has the potential to reverse as it steers people towards trusted sites and encourages them to actively seek out reputable news sources. This would, in turn, make clicks to fake news websites much less valuable.
The message is a simple one, when it comes to fake news take everything you read online with a massive pinch of salt. Make sure to double check your facts before you wander off to the pub and tell all your mates that Hilary Clinton is an alien!