Like many in PR, advertising, and journalism, I was relieved when Google and Facebook announced they would ban “fake news” sites from using use their ad services. By attacking the advertising model that supports sites like World News Daily Report and NewsBuzzDaily, they might help slow the viral spread of false, defamatory, and even dangerous stories. The move still won’t stop the patently fake stories in my Facebook stream, but it’s a start.
Fake content has been around as long as the internet, but as a culture, we didn’t take it so seriously until after the 2016 election. But after reports that some fabricated – and highly inflammatory – stories were more widely shared on Facebook than top legitimate news stories, many are concerned about the power and the prevalence of false news. The culmination (at least I hope it’s the culmination) of the dark consequences of such stories was the recent shooting outside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that has been the subject of scurrilous rumors. Post-factual “news” isn’t just a threat to journalism or democracy – it’s a magnet for the mentally unstable.
I’m as concerned as anyone, but the furor also makes me think about where we draw the line between truth and so-called propaganda – sometimes known as PR. The case of Bell Pottinger, the UK PR firm that created fake insurgent videos as part of a contract with the Pentagon, made me wonder about the PR’s role in truth-telling. At one of my early PR agency jobs, the founder would begin every new business presentation with a story about how he started the business after working in propaganda for the U.S. Army. It was a seamless transition to promoting beauty products and soft drinks in the buoyant post-WWII environment.
Most PR isn’t propaganda, and government work – even disinformation campaigns – presumably serves a higher purpose. Certainly it did back in the days of WWII. But the slope can be a slippery one.
What can an honest PR person do?
PR pros do this anyway, of course, but for any of us, now is not the time to let our newspaper subscription lapse, or to cut back on your digital content subscriptions. Real news is hard – harder than ever, in fact, in the digital era – and that work costs money. Think twice before you download that ad blocker; it doesn’t really stop ads from counting and only erodes content quality.
False stories and internet rumors don’t start all at once; they can result from a misperception or inaccuracy that was never corrected, leaving it open to further distortion. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote, and to hold both clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking.
We shouldn’t get lazy about attribution, even when it’s about widely cited information that’s publicly available. Everything counts.
Like many PR professionals, we’ve had experience with web-based rumors that threaten a brand’s reputation. It can be tough to fight lies (and that’s what we should call them) without calling undue attention to them. In the case of our client, it was a vicious rumor started by a disgruntled blogger alleging the brand had ties to an illegal organization. We helped the client debunk the lies with the help of third-party groups who specialize in quashing misinformation.
Best not to share or link back to fake stories or publications (like the ones mentioned but NOT linked to here) unless it’s for purposes of having them banned by your social media platform of choice.
Storytelling hasn’t been done through mass media channels for a good while, but in the post-factual universe, communicators need to adapt. This post from Robert Wynne makes the point that because consumers are increasingly segregating ourselves by our media and content choices, PRs must reach important audiences not through mass persuasion, but with what he terms Tribal Persuasion and Micro-Persuasion.
That study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance – who funded it? As PR pros, many of us have deep experience promoting health news, often funded by large companies, and usually supporting the organization’s brand or bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with this. But we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding, and consumers of such news should take note of who pays, and who benefits.