PR Protection in the Era of “Fake News”

The old saying about how a lie can get around the world before the truth makes it out of bed never met the internet. These days, misinformation and disinformation can become ingrained into the psyche of an audience before the real message is even finished being created. The fact is, fake news is a real problem, and it’s something all communicators must take very seriously.

One of the biggest issues with fake news is how fast it spreads. Because, in truth, fake news has always been with us, but the internet supercharges rumors, as well as the speed at which they spread, so that correcting fake narratives can be a fulltime job. Consider the recent US election. One fact-check website had already researched and debunked more than a dozen election fraud rumors by breakfast the day after the election. And, while these stories were factually discredited, that didn’t stop the spread. In some cases, putting the facts out there served to exacerbate the spread of misinformation.

But speed is not the only factor to consider when trying to stop the spread of fake news. The nature of how these messages spread is also important to consider. Often, it begins with a trickle, a single social media post by a relative unknown user. It’s shared a few times and someone with some real clout on that platform sees it. Re-share, and… boom. Massive spread. By the time the subject of the fake news hears about the story, millions of people already believe it.

At that point, even if the fake news is countered or “debunked,” there’s still a lot of ground to make up, and the message is still churning, winning new converts to the misinformation at an ever-faster rate. The key, then, is to spot it fast and go after it hard. Here’s how to do that.

Start by paying attention to the researchers that are discovering and studying the patterns through which fake news spreads. By looking at various real-world scenarios, researchers are using machine learning to spot patterns and figure out how to disrupt them. This process is especially difficult on social media, due to the ever-shifting, complex social connections. There are almost endless layers and nuances to the message sharing, with more people pulled into the net every time.

Researchers discovered that the number of “share layers” in a fake news story is noticeably larger than the number of layers in a real news story. In other words, the chain of people sharing the story has more links. It might start with a rumor seen by a person who shares it on social media then it’s picked up by someone else and someone else, until it’s seen by an influencer or someone with enough of an audience to elevate the visibility of the story. Meanwhile, a news story will have a source, a reporter, and an audience. Three layers, only two of which are actually story “spread.”

And, much like the telephone game, as people share the fake news from the dubious source, facts get even more skewed, leading to even more salacious and, thus, potentially sticky headlines. However, when considering a strategy to respond to fake news, it’s not as effective unless the initial source can be found and described. Once people see where the fake news came from, they are potentially more likely to let go of it. Not always, but it’s easier to walk away from a narrative that doesn’t have all their friends attached to it. There’s less of an emotional connection.

Getting back to the original source is one of the best strategies to avoiding the trap of “fake news” as well as countering these messages. Even in the age of citizen journalism and social media, a legitimate story will have an easily found, reliable source.

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