Fake news isn’t new. The deliberate spread of misinformation goes back thousands of years, with examples throughout ancient and modern history. In Roman times, it’s believed that emperor Mark Anthony committed suicide as a result of a misinformation campaign.
As the media industry has grown it has frequently been used to deceive as well as inform, but the advent of the internet and the growth of social media as a public news platform has made propaganda campaigns easier and more effective. The term ‘Fake News’ came to prominence after a number of websites were found promoting false and often outrageous information in support of the 2016 Trump campaign in the US. Since then, the term has frequently been used as a political weapon to undermine legitimate news sources by labelling them ‘Fake News’.
Yet it’s important not to underrate the power of fake news, in spite of the clichéd nature of the term. With the internet at our disposal, it’s relatively easy to disseminate negative information about a business, organisation or person, while it’s much harder for the target to prove that this information is false. Companies working to establish an effective reputation management strategy need to factor in the potential impact of fake news and what it could do to the brand’s image.
What Is Fake News?
Not all damaging information found on the internet can be considered fake news. Many stories may simply take a mistake or a mishandled crisis and blow it out of proportion. As every publicity expert knows, spinning information in a positive or negative context has a big impact on how it is perceived, and many news organisations have an incentive to make headlines as sensational as possible in order to attract clicks.
However, using false or miscalculated statistics can quickly turn a negative exposé into fake news. In 2016, CNN cited a hospital in Florida for mortality rates three times the national average based on the number of children who died during open heart surgery. The hospital subsequently closed its paediatric program, but later challenges have undermined the accuracy of CNN’s reporting. In 2016, Dr. Michael Black, former head of the program, filed a defamation suit claiming that the mortality rates cited in the report were falsely calculated.
The most dangerous fake news campaign goes far beyond a single story that got the facts wrong. It is a deliberate and well-organised attempt to mislead the public. As well as spreading stories through traditional news outlets, perpetrators will register fake accounts to share and comment on their own material and make it sound more legitimate.
In a political context, fake news relies on hot button topics such as immigration or threats to job security. Racial tension and allegations of sexual exploitation are frequently added as clickbait. In the 2016 campaign, a story that Trump’s opponent Hilary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring through a pizzeria gathered enough attention to severely damage the reputation of the store, in spite of the fact that the idea was outrageous and completely unfounded.
Businesses aren’t immune to these types of attacks, unlikely as it may sound. Competitors, disgruntled customers, and former employees with a grudge all have an incentive to attack an organisation, and with the internet at their disposal, they have the means to do a lot of damage.
Protect Against Fake News
Ongoing reputation management is one of the best ways to protect against fake news. If the company already has a strong positive profile, with accurate, up-to-date facts and statistics available online, it will be much harder for a fake news campaign to gain ground. At the same time, it’s important to actively manage reputation for the CEO and other high-level executives, since a personal attack against one of these people can quickly threaten the company’s image.
Avoid negative stories as much as possible, since misinformation infiltrated with elements of truth has a much better chance of appearing legitimate. Of course it’s impossible to prevent every mistake, but active crisis management, effective employee policies and a transparent company culture can help to minimise the effect of fake news.
When problems occur, get out ahead of the news story with an honest assessment of what happened and why. Be ready to admit mistakes and apologise when appropriate so it’s clear you have nothing to hide. Above all, avoid spreading your own fake information since this is likely to backfire and undermine the organisation’s credibility.
Contact ReputationDefender for more information on how to build a reputation that can withstand the worst types of fake news.