When a person – politician, salesman, TV star or anyone else in the public eye – says something that’s patently and demonstrably untrue, there are two reactions. The first that most thinking people have is to laugh and then to shake their head wearily as much as to say, “What will he/she come up with next?” The other is to completely ignore rational thought, science, facts, experts and anything or anyone who would easily point out the error in the remark. When someone does that, it’s usually in order to blindly support that person or their credo, without question and without doubting. This is dangerous territory in a world where mass communication through news channels and social media can quickly and easily reinforce the narrative that’s being promoted, whether it be to deny climate change, to support fundamentalist or extreme left or right-wing narratives, for instance (either covertly or overtly), to brush away uncomfortable truths or to reinforce a flawed agenda that needs a boost.
We see this daily and the shock of it has long since disappeared. At the time of writing there are several agencies in the US tracking the lies, half truths and misleading statements made by President Trump; during 2018, they averaged 15 false claims a day, according to the Washington Post. We are now inured to the fact that our political masters lie to us and it’s part of the normal routine. Yet, many of their followers will deny that there has been any bending of the truth at all.
Fake News is not a new thing. A quick trawl on Wikipedia will demonstrate that public figures often play with the truth: Rameses the Great, for example, claimed a mighty victory against the Hittites in 13th century BC. In fact, it was a draw! Benjamin Franklin claimed that murderous Native Americans were working with King George III in order to rally support for the American Revolution.
What are the reasons for fake news?
There are many reasons why fake news hits our screens and airwaves every day. Being aware that it’s happening is part way to defending oneself against it, but it sometimes creeps up unexpectedly from areas where one would expect trusted sources. Let’s check out a few of the main reasons for fake news:
- Propaganda – this has always been a major part of the PR armoury for any organisation that wants or needs to influence public opinion. It can be benign: drinking alcohol is harmful; drinking milk is beneficial. It can also be malign – foreigners steal our jobs and our women; all (insert nationality here) are evil. Propaganda at best tends to massage the truth rather than simply present facts. It applies “spin” that suits the narrative of the spinner
- Misdirection – in the world of magic tricks, misdirection is the practice of diverting attention from one thing to another to enable a deception to take place. In the world of fake news and politics, it’s the practice of taking attention away from something potentially damaging by pointing people at something distracting to change the subject.
- Hoax – we’ve all done them and had them done to us, but hoaxes are the most fundamental of fake news techniques. Moreover, people who essentially lie for a living will claim, when faced with the truth, that they were simply kidding, it was just a joke. Hoaxes seem like the truth until you have the reality revealed
- Clickbait – if I post on social media that it has emerged that the Prime Minister is taking bribes from the Russians … and here’s the video proof … I’ll get a lot of clicks. Headlines that say, “Remember (famous young celebrity of 20 years ago) – well look at him now!” will also get a surge of traffic. Clickbait is exactly that: bait to pull people in with enticing headlines that often front quite innocuous content. The reason? In order to make money, because clicks please the advertisers whose promotions sit on those pages
- Influencers distorting reality – politicians frequently bend the truth in order to keep their followers onside or simply to get out of sticky situations. Some are more masterly than others and “reality distortion field” is a term that was coined to describe the way in which Steve Jobs worked in Apple. “The reality distortion field” was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs’s ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence.” (Wikipedia)
- Partisan politics (post-truth) – focusing on emotions rather than on facts. We now live in an era where it’s the emotions that are important and not the validity of the information. This counter-intuitive approach is for political parties to appeal to their followers, not through reason, but through telling them what they want to hear. This has led directly to the rise of populism, driven by a perception that the traditional political classes do not listen and do not care about certain groups in society.
All of these elements, and there are more, have jumped into sharp relief over the past few years, during the age of austerity across Europe and the US. The agenda for political interaction has changed from one informed by advisers to one led by orators with dubious credentials. This same effect has infected the Brexit debate within society where the default answers of “You lost, get over it,” and “Britons have had enough of experts” are seen as sufficient answer to reasoned arguments on the other side. Some of the responses from the other side in that particular debate have been no more worthwhile, with “All Leavers are racists,” and “Only stupid people voted Leave,” leading the pack.
Why is Fake News an issue?
There’s concern among many people that fake news is destroying constructive discussion and debate. If it’s hard to believe what anyone says and indeed, many find it positively a sign of weakness to believe, then how are we to present reasoned arguments, discuss products and services or provide coherent advice to anyone in such a climate? For many reasons, it is becoming difficult to engage with the public at large:
- It’s hard to differentiate truth from lies – if everyone tells lies, then no one is to be believed and a significant level of scepticism will undermine trust in established processes
- Readers become polarised and tend to pick news that supports their own narrative – everyone has their view of course, but “my team, right or wrong” is currently the order of the day. On social media, we follow the commentators who reflect our own opinions (not surprisingly), but we don’t give airtime in this way to those who may have opposing opinions that are perfectly valid
- Discrediting of genuine news sources and experts – dismissing all of the press that disagrees with him as “Fake News” may work for President Trump, but it calls into question the validity of any reporting or fact-based discourse. If the answer to anything we don’t like is not a reasoned argument, but a simple dismissal, then we have undermined the whole process of communication
- Blind tribal following of factions and growth of extremism/populism – much as football supporters follow their teams through thick and thin, so too the followers of populists will blindly repeat their mantras and reinforce each other in the group. This leads to polarised and obsessive movements
- Effect on the vulnerable, the young and on those in the public eye – it’s very easy to be carried along by the crowd, unthinkingly. Those most at risk are those with the least to lose or the least experience of life
- Undue influence on democratic processes – it’s apparent that fake news has seriously skewed opinion in the UK and US, particularly in elections and the referendum. The “Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report” from the Parliamentary Select Committee makes it clear that individuals, businesses and political groups should exercise caution when using or receiving content, particularly from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
How does Fake News spread?
Fake news, like gossip, spreads like wildfire and, once it’s out there, no matter how much you try, it’s impossible to rein it in. It gains a life of its own. For this reason as much as any, business owners should be aware that, for example, negative and malicious reviews of their products and services are forever. It’s really important to establish crisis management PR techniques for dealing with these issues, and for responding constructively to criticism. You don’t want the Gerald Ratner effect!
- Social media – Facebook is currently very much in the dock on both sides of the Atlantic. The company is, of course, driven by making money. However, the “at any cost” approach seems to directly conflict with their “Do no harm” philosophy. We’ve already mentioned above the power of social media to disseminate and propagate fake news. The paid promotional side of these platforms not only enables the advertiser or promoter to target the reader in their homes; it also can refine the target by age group, geography, profession, interests and, yes, political inclinations – all data that Facebook has gleaned from its massive databases
- “….negative stories will always be prioritised by algorithms, as they are shared more frequently than positive stories.” (Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report – UK Parliament) – and this is very much the case with, for example, Republican influencers spreading deliberate untruths about Democrats in the US in order to destabilise their reputation. The process works something like this: a) tell a blatant lie about your opponent; b) exaggerate it and make it outrageous to fan the flames; c) rinse and repeat. On social media, this works well because people simply Like or Retweet it many times over until something that was blatantly untrue has gained a life of its own. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a frequent victim of this.
- Partisan press – a good deal of the responsibility for the wildfire spread of fake news is down to the press and media who not only promote stories that are palpably false in order to follow their owners’ agendas, but they also encourage those stories by not calling out remarks from interviewees who use untruths to make their points. There are too many examples to mention in the Brexit debate, but for examples of newspapers fanning the flames of intolerance and racism, one only needs to see front pages over the past two years from the tabloid press on the topic of immigrants – The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade wrote a piece on this recently.
- Rumour and conspiracy theory websites – the most well-known conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, has now been banned from social media platforms. His influence spread far and wide, promoting theories as ridiculous as the fact that chemicals in water are turning frogs “gay”; that Robert Mueller is a paedophile and the Sandy Hook shooting was staged. (CNBC News) His views have/had a wide following and people love to feel that there is a conspiracy against them on many levels.
In what way does it threaten publishing and their readership?
Fake news destroys the credibility of all press and media that promote it. Reputable platforms will carefully validate stories before they promote them and, in the case where they are proven to have been wrong, will publish retractions and apologies. One of the greatest issues however has been the fact that social media platforms have felt themselves exempt from this process and from a duty of care and have simply seen themselves as publishing platforms, without responsibility for the content that they carry. This has backfired, particularly on Facebook, which is now facing regulation in many countries and could find itself losing readership.
- Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction – after a while it becomes difficult to separate what is real and what is false and eventually, readers lose faith in the content, the writer or the publisher. If fake news can be easily discredited, but people choose not to do so because it feeds their own particular narrative, then we are moving to what has been called an era of “post-truth” where veracity does not matter – only emotion is key. As mentioned earlier, this fans the flames of populism, which is driven not by reasoned argument, but by passion.
- Sowing seeds of doubt into mainstream political and scientific discourse – one can see the effects of uncontrolled fake news in the spread of measles, following the success of now discredited anti-vaxxer stories. This began with a spurious link between vaccinations and autism, promoted by Andrew Wakefield – a former UK doctor who has now been struck off the register. Many took his views at face value and wished to protect their children. However, the net effect has been to build a movement which, without any basis in scientific fact, has imperilled children’s lives. People find it hard to distinguish the fake from the truth in arguments where there are complexities outside their field of experience. They choose belief in what their peers support and this leads inevitably to situations where the wrong choice is made
- Undermining the foundations and validity of key institutions, including governments – if those in power lie, then what hope is there for truth? Yet it seems almost a requirement that politicians either will lie blatantly, bend the truth or will avoid the answer. This leads to a reduction in trust when people believe that their will is not respected or they are being simply misled.
How should readers respond to potential fake news?
While people may find the lines between fact and fiction hard to see, readers do have a responsibility to apply some measures of curiosity to the validity of what they read and repeat. A few simple guidelines to help this process along and the IFLA’s guide below also makes interesting reading:
- Fact check anything that is contentious – if you are outraged by something you read, check it before you spread it. Fake news relies on emotions to course through the airwaves and Twitterverse. Find references to the same topic elsewhere – from a reputable source. Look at mainstream news sites, serious newspapers or check the commentary of people you trust online. If in doubt, call it out!
- Don’t spread information that may be erroneous – if you are uncertain of the provenance or accuracy of something you have read, it is better not to perpetuate and extend its life by sharing it
- Challenge those who publish fake news to verify their claims or to provide evidence and sources – too many fake news sources get away with it because few people challenge them. Stand up and be counted and ask for citations, sources, evidence. When they don’t respond, call them out for their non-response and repeat your request for more information. Investigative reporters such as Carole Cadwalladr make themselves very unpopular with fake news generators for this very reason
- When writing your own content, provide verifiable sources – protect yourself from being accused of fake news by always backing up what you say with sources, particularly if the topic is contentious. Airy generalisations about how international trade works, or the validity of vaccination programs are soon demolished when faced with facts
- See the IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions – guide to recognising fake news: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174
Here at ExtraMile, we’re about providing the real news: news about your company and making people take notice through the use of clever digital marketing techniques. You can read more topics of interest to businesses on ExtraMile Communications blog.
Nick Evans is Chairman of ExtraMile Communications, which he set up in 2000 with Gabrielle Hadley (Managing Director). ExtraMile is an international digital marketing agency that provides multilingual services in web design and development, email marketing, Search Engine Marketing and PR to companies large and small.
Previously, Nick was Head of Marketing for Apple Education and before that, had a career in sales and marketing after being a school teacher in the North East of England. He has a long history of working in and with technology, in education, in marketing and in business. He is a published author with titles in topics including business development, education software and, latterly, a venture into teen fiction.
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