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The real threat of ‘fake news’

By Wright Communications - 30 June 2017
In the social media era, negative stories can go viral and destroy a business. Now, with the emergence of ‘fake news’, those stories may not even be real. Fake news is a modern term for what was once known as ‘yellow journalism’. It describes hoaxes, conspiracy theories and bogus news stories that are spread online, often by people who mistake them for genuine news stories. While some fake news stories are satire (e.g. anything on The Onion), others are deliberately concocted to push political agendas, mislead the public or pursue a vendetta against a person or organisation.

Where it came from

The term fake news emerged following last year's US Presidential election, which saw several made-up stories get widely shared on social media.

President Donald Trump then co-opted the term to attack the mainstream media, over what he and his supporters perceived to be biased coverage.

New Zealand is not immune to the phenomenon of fake news, as shown by recent news stories featuring dubious claims of 'Welsh' skulls that pre-dated the arrival of Maori in New Zealand.

This may fan the flames of conspiracy theories, but when false reporting targets a company it can do major financial and reputational damage.

PepsiCo recently faced the threat of a consumer boycott, after false reports that CEO Indra Nooyi had told supporters of President Trump to take their business elsewhere.

Shoe company New Balance had the opposite problem: it was branded by some right-wing websites as supporting President Trump, due to quotes being taken out of context.

In a polarised world where consumers are increasingly bringing politics into their purchasing decisions, businesses need to be careful they don't alienate a big portion of their customer base. Fake news makes this even harder to avoid.

The New Zealand context

New Zealand businesses are every bit as vulnerable to fake news as their overseas counterparts, but to be prepared they need to understand where the threats lie.

While New Zealand has a handful of well-read blogs such as Kiwiblog and the infamous Whale Oil, it doesn't have the array of alternative media outlets that generate much of the fake news in the USA.

The mainstream media still dominate here, as evidenced by the Commerce Commission rejecting the proposed merger of NZME and Fairfax due to concerns over market dominance.

However, those looking to push an agenda may target an inexperienced and naïve journalist, often at a community newspaper.

For example, the story about ancient Welsh people in New Zealand was initially reported in the Northern Advocate before being picked up by the New Zealand Herald.

The good news about fake news is that the Internet seems to be just as good at sniffing out a fake story as concocting one.

In this instance, both Vice and the Spinoff were quick to publish articles questioning the claims and the credentials of the 'historian' who made them.

How to fight it

The best way to fight fake news is with facts, but you need to ensure they are seen by as many people as possible.

Getting your side of the story into the mainstream media is important, but in this day and age you can use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to broadcast the truth unfiltered.

Being quick to react is important, because you will struggle to go viral responding to yesterday's fake news.

The emergence of fake news is a risk for businesses in general, but for the Public Relations industry it is both a threat and an opportunity.

The threat comes from the damage fake news can do to perceptions of media; if the public don't trust media, the value of positive media coverage of a business is reduced. This reduces the value of PR as a service.

On the other hand, the proliferation of fake news makes trusted sources more valuable to journalists.

A PR practitioner who has a good relationship with a journalist can add a lot of credibility to a company or brand, making it much easier to pitch a story (or squash a fake one).

Fake news may be a new phenomenon, but most of the traditional principles of communications and issues management still apply.

The most important thing is for businesses to be aware of the risks and to have the capability to respond, whether that is in-house or through an external agency. A fake story can do real harm to your business.

 

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