Surviving in a ‘Fake News’ World

13 Feb, 2017


Surviving in a ‘Fake News’ World

The armed invasion of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., has focused public attention — and rightly so — on “fake news.”

In this case, what became known as “pizza-gate,” fake news sites reported the restaurant was home to a pedophilia ring with connections to the Hillary Clinton campaign, and at least one person took it seriously enough to attempt a self-investigation with gun in hand. While most fake news stories don’t lead to such dramatic outcomes, we’re told that fake new is the latest and most worrisome manifestation of a deeper problem, that of living in a “post-truth” world. Public affairs professionals wonder how to respond. It’s an important question, but most of the answers offered so far aren’t terribly encouraging.

For example, we’re told “how to spot” fake news, and Facebook plans to let us know when it appears. If our organization buys ads, we’re urged to make sure they don’t appear on fake news sites.

In case we become a target ourselves, we’re advised to get the crisis-communications team ready. But when has it not been a good idea to have the crisis-communications team ready?

And what is the crisis-communications team supposed to do differently from what it did when the problem was plain and simple misinformation? Or outright lies spread by people who want to inflict damage?

‘Doubling Down’ on Truth

Some counselors propose a more comprehensive and forward-looking stance. Now’s the time, PR Week’s editor-in-chief says, “when media and communicators need to double down on the standards of truth, authenticity, transparency, best practice, and facts that have traditionally defined their crafts.”

But when has it not made sense to be truthful, authentic and transparent?

And if truth itself is no longer valued, what’s to be gained by doubling down on it?

‘A Low-Trust World’

Way back in the February 2014 issue of Impact, in a column headlined “When Facts Don’t Matter,” Council President Doug Pinkham offered a helpful insight. Citing a New York Times article about allegations against genetically modified organisms, he pondered what he called “the difficulty of making smart public policy in a low-trust world.”

Sometimes facts don’t matter much at all, he wrote, when concerns about trust are elevated.

The implication (borne out by back-and-forth charges levied during the past presidential campaign) seems clear. Fake news proliferates when trust — in business, in government and in the news media — declines.

Unfortunately, there is little cause to believe trust in any of these institutions is likely to recover in the foreseeable future. What can be done?

Perhaps we all need to think clearly about the nature of the problem. Will Oremus of Slate offers this useful reminder:

Fake news is a real, specific problem. But in all the furor around who’s making it, who’s sharing it, its impact, and how to stop it, it’s easy to lose sight of something more fundamental: what it is. The broader the definition, the less useful the concept becomes — and it’s already verging on counterproductive.

The Intention to Deceive

Sensibly, Oremus offers no simple definition. He does stipulate that “fake” suggests the intention to deceive. That’s helpful. But if an intention to deceive is the determining factor, this opens up areas of discussion that might, or should, make all of us a little uncomfortable.

Fake political news stories in the 2016 presidential campaign managed to reach untold numbers in part because, Oremus says, they appealed to readers’ biases and “imitated the style and appearance of real news articles.”

In some ways, the same might be said for a range of print and online communications tactics that the public affairs profession (and the public) now takes for granted, including sponsored content such as advertorials that can read like news. There’s nothing wrong with these practices, provided the sponsored content is clearly labeled as such. Some media outlets follow labeling rules religiously, while others intentionally make native advertising look similar to news.

Fake political news stories in the 2016 presidential campaign managed to reach untold numbers in part because, Oremus says, they appealed to readers’ biases and “imitated the style and appearance of real news articles.”

Fake vs. False

But determining what is a fact and what is a falsehood is no longer as easy as it might once have been. Not so long ago, people believed what they heard on the nightly news because Walter Cronkite was delivering it and they trusted Walter Cronkite. His successor, Dan Rather, lost his job because some of what he said was found to be false — or at least unverifiable.

Fact-checking organizations and sites exist for a reason. It’s not always obvious whether something is true, and getting to the bottom of things can often require more time, effort and energy than average people can afford. And even the experts interviewed or cited in a fact-checking article can disagree. Determining what’s false, as opposed to what is simply fake, can become an exercise in epistemology, well beyond the pay grade of most newspaper columnists.

The best way to operate most effectively in a “post-truth” world is to not pretend the issues involved are simpler than they happen to be and cast about vainly for a simple answer and ready-made action plan.

It would be misleading to imply there’s a quick fix. There isn’t one, and that’s a fact.

Want More Information on This Topic?

Contact Nick DeSarno, manager, grassroots and communications.

Additional Resources

Writing Workshop: Persuasive Writing