It seems that a topic du jour is that fake news is infiltrating mainstream reporting. Well, maybe not exclusively mainstream media outlets, but surely across the Internet and blog-o-sphere.
“Fake news is really just an extreme form of what we commonly call ‘propaganda,’ which has been around since the advent of the printing press,” says Mark Grossman of Mark Grossman Public Relations. He adds: “Since the 15th century, governments were the main purveyors of the earliest fake news.” Some might say that not much has changed.
The distribution of fake news and the level of disruption it causes has reached a fever pitch. Once the domain of the National Enquirer, the Internet now produces stories containing alternative facts, quoting of unnamed sources, doctored images, fragments of outrageous statements clearly out of context, and none of it is true. It is a serious and nagging reality of today’s instant and pervasive spread of information, true or not.
A Fox News poll (January 24, 2017) of 1000 national registered voters indicated that 84 percent are, at least, somewhat concerned fake news is “hurting the country.” Of that number, 61 percent are “very” worried, and another 23 percent are “somewhat” concerned. Only 15 percent aren’t worried about the phenomenon, where false stories are passed off as real, factual reporting. (See how this differs from a Gallup Survey in September 2016 in Peter Crescenti’s “Credibility and the News Media” article on page ?????)
Tim Hurley of Cahill Strategies says, “In this day and age, in one of the most modern societies on the planet, with unfettered Internet access, there is no reason not to check the facts we read before we repeat them. We’re in a new era where we have the ability to check for truth but we just haven’t gotten good at it yet.”
Grossman adds, “What makes today different is that the tools to communicate to the public are very accessible to the average person.” Social media sites are great incubators for not only the obvious but also the more subtle fake news stories. So how can public relation professionals deal with fake news? It is a question to which few PR professionals have an answer.
Besides denying the veracity of the news items, how can targets of false news stories find ways to correct the record? Are denials generally seen as “He doth protest too much?” to paraphrase the great Bard William Shakespeare. Regardless of initial public doubt, a public relations professional must react swiftly and forcefully especially when fake news is affecting their clients. Having firm, assertive, and repeatable truthful messaging across all outlets is appropriate and can ultimately be effective. You may have to repeat your message more than is comfortable, but if you don’t, how will you make any progress in correcting the record?
Another question is, when do so-called fake news issues get labeled as outright lies? Media is ripe with statements that are wholly untrue yet go unchallenged and are then presented as fact. The talking heads on network and cable TV, and talk radio play the supposition game very well. They drone on and on about what the “real truth” is beyond the story. Handling fake news as if it were the real thing has caused a deeper erosion of the trust in journalists because they seem to have missed Journalism 101 and fail to vet the accuracy of information or the source from which it came.
“I see headlines all the time that agree with my worldview but I check them anyway. I’ve been burned before. It is unfortunate but it is something we all must do,” says Hurley. He adds, “The power of every individual to check the facts objectively is the solution and the cure for fake news.”
Grossman says, “Clearly, these are issues we, as a professional community, will continue to grapple with, and it may get worse before it gets better.”
Those who ascribe to fake news are often the ones who perpetuate the continuing distribution. Plugging into an ethos of disruption accompanied by an erosion of good manners, a lack of understanding what is appropriate behavior, and putting agenda above all fan the fires of fake reports.
Realize that the purpose of fake news is almost exclusively the same as Internet viruses: to do maximum harm. The perpetrators of all fake news have but one intention and that is doing the most damage they can to the subject of the lie. Those lies seem to find homes in the minds of those who are already aligned with the agenda it perpetuates.
Currently there are no real penalties, civil or criminal, for the deliberate distribution of fake news. The United States is a bastion of freedom of speech; however, remember that it is illegal to holler “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
The public relations profession is faced with some heavy lifting when fake news is aimed at their client or company. The fake news phenomenon is not new, but it is just as perplexing today as it was in the 15th century.