There was a time, long ago, when Facebook was a place purely to catch up on the lives of close friends and family. To reconnect with someone you’d lost touch with. The Facebook of today is virtually unrecognisable. In order to continue making money, the social network brokered deals with major publishers to create a newsfeed dominated by the media rather than everyday people. Then, this summer, to tackle the inevitable loss of users who use Facebook for the sole purpose of connecting with loved-ones, the company did an about-face and published a formal “News Feed Values” document, the core of which stated that posts from friends and families would be pushed to the top of news feeds.
While these changes have slowly taken place, a new, more worrying trend has emerged: fake news. “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide” were just two of many phoney headlines that reached millions.
With trust in the media at an all-time low, alternative news outlets have been given room to grow. While the internet has allowed the unprecedented sharing of knowledge, it has also meant that among a glut of content, it is increasingly difficult to tell the truths from the lies.
So how does a PR do their job effectively in this post-truth world?
Though individual fake news stories may not be dangerous, their potency materialises when these are aggregated. As The New York Times put it, “Propagandists often don’t care whether everyone, or even most people, really believe the specific things they are selling…They just have to get you confused enough so that you don’t know what’s true. That’s still deception.” There would have been many that didn’t believe the FBI suicide-Hillary Clinton story, but it certainly helped stoke the fire of doubt. It blurred into the muddled background of uncertainty, leaving many to wonder: could she?
In the past, most people would ignore an outlandish story until it was confirmed by a credible source. Editors served as filters to weed out the bad and false from the compelling real news. The internet has put a stop to that. With algorithms that confirm our biases and serve a loop of repetitive information, it’s likely that people have read a fake story multiple times. And if they’ve seen the same thing over and over, they’re more susceptible to believe it.
It is more important than ever for PRs to remain aware of what is going on in the media landscape and, more significantly, in regards to their client. Preparation is key, so that if a fake story circulates about a client, they have a plan in place and can swing into action immediately.
There’s no better argument for a social media presence than the fact that it’s the medium that galvanised the widespread proliferation of fake news in the first place. Social media can make or break a brand’s reputation and having a presence there allows the brand to take control of the situation by giving their true position on a story with more authenticity than a press release.
If a fabricated story gains traction, PRs should embrace the crisis and play it to their advantage. Use it as an opportunity to tell the story of the brand and flood the media with positive stories that will affect SEO. Using paid media (whether that is on social media, print or broadcast) will spread the truth to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
Until the social networks find a fool-proof way of separating the wheat from the chaff and delivering only genuine stories, the best PRs and brands can do is be prepared and speak up. Ensure your brand is already telling their story and spreading their message via social media and should a phoney story ever emerge, tackle it immediately with a pre-prepared plan of action. There’s no way of stopping online hate, but there is a way of preventing the storm from escalating.
By Bella Foxwell