By Lucy Siegel | June 24, 2020

Disinformation and misinformation have become more hazardous than ever before. They interfere not only in politics and government, but also in business, science, entertainment, sports and just about every other realm of life. They can seriously harm a reputation or do other serious damage in a matter of hours, thanks to the internet. Public relations and marketing communication professionals are on the front line fighting fake news in several ways:

  • Defending organizations that have been hurt by it,
  • Assuring that information from organizations we represent holds up under scrutiny from the media and public for accuracy,
  • Parsing what’s true and what isn’t, so we can better evaluate the communications environment in which we are operating, and
  • Finding and revealing the sources of disinformation as a way to create trust in the actual facts.

First, the difference between disinformation and misinformation: disinformation is the deliberate, spread of lies to mislead and manipulate people. When used by governments, it has traditionally been called propaganda. Often disinformation has some elements of truth to make it believable.

Misinformation is also the spread of falsehoods, but by accident. Sometimes misinformation results from a story making the rounds that changes slightly each time it is told. On the internet, social media plays a big role in this. Person A reads something incorrect, forwards it to Person B, C and D, who each forward it to three or four more people, and hours later the misinformation has made it halfway around the world. It becomes more believable as more and more people read it and repeat it. (“They can’t all be wrong, can they?” Yes, they can.)

According to The Atlantic, “…multiple studies have confirmed that…fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.”

The first step in fighting fake news is spotting it. For the public, that isn’t always easy. Some misinformation is widely believed to be true – such as the urban legend that alligators live in the sewers in New York City.  As for disinformation, current technology can be used to alter video and audio files so that the change is imperceptible except to professionals.

Checking Facts is Crucial for Journalists and PR Professionals

Fact-checking consists of evaluating the trustworthiness of the source of information, looking for other reliable sources that confirm the information and if necessary, searching for original source documents (some of which may be online) and consulting with experts on the topic being researched.

Sometimes public relations professionals receive incorrect information from their management or agency clients. For example, a few years back, a PR agency developed a PR program for a new client after being briefed by the client. However, the client was exaggerating his organization’s success, claiming to be “first and only” in accomplishments with virtually no competition, when actually the organization wasn’t first or only. If the agency staff hadn’t researched the organization, they would have repeated these exaggerations to the media and others. The bottom line is sometimes PR people are told a story the way a client (or senior management) wants it to be told – wishful thinking. It’s the responsibility of public relations staff and agencies to get to the real facts and frame the story both truthfully and in the way that will best serve the client. It is unethical to knowingly spread false information.

In news reporting, fact checkers at (respected) media companies play an important role in verifying information. The lightning speed of the spread of fake news has greatly increased the need for fact checking.  In addition to fact checkers at news media outlets, there are also fact-checking organizations independent of any particular media outlet, such as FactCheckSnopes and PolitiFact, all of which concentrate mostly on information that has political impact.

The Poynter Institute reported on research that shows fact-checking works partly because knowledge of being fact-checked influences public figures to stick more closely to the truth. Other research shows that fact-checking also influences the public, at least to some extent. There is a common view that providing straight facts to people whose beliefs contradict the facts is ineffective, because people believe what they want to believe. However, a study done at Cornell University a few years ago showed that about 30% of the people in the group being studied changed their opinions when they were provided with contradictory facts. In addition, research was done in 2016 that concluded, “By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments.”

Therefore, when misinformation is reported in the media, it pays for public relations representatives to push for corrections when a mistake is made.

Software Initiatives for Finding the Source of Fake News

When fake news turns up, the best way of fighting it is to find the source and then expose it publicly. There are technological tools available that can help with this.

  • NewsWhip, used by PR agencies, marketers and media organizations, “tracks and predicts the impact of millions of stories” (according to the website). The organization’s website says that NewsWhip can provide accurate predictions on the engagement of a story almost immediately after it appears and can identify how a story spreads across social media and which influencers are spreading it.
  • K. nonprofit Full Fact Foundation is developing an automated fact-checking app with two tools, Live and Trends. According to the Full Fact website, “Trends records every repetition of a claim we know is wrong, as well as where it comes from, so we can keep track of who or what is persistently pushing misleading claims out into the world. Live… spots claims in TV subtitles that we’ve fact checked before and automatically pulls up our most recent articles in response. It also spots claims that haven’t been fact checked before – but reliable data exists for – and creates fact checks on the spot using that data.”
  • There are also web tools that detect bots and spam coming from automated social media accounts. See the Verge article below for information about them.
Software for Fact-Checking and Preventing Spread of Fake News

According to Mozilla’s blog, the number of fact-checking initiatives globally tripled between 2015 and 2018. This includes the development of fact-checking software and other software that limits the spread of dis- and misinformation.

  • Google has built some fact-checking into its search software by highlighting information in its search results that has been fact-checked.
  • Mozilla has a browser extension that can be added to its Firefox browser that indicates political bias of the page visited. Mozilla partners with the website Media Bias/Fact Check, which gauges political bias.
  • NewsGuard is a browser extension that can be used on major browsers and mobile browsers. According to its website, it works by displaying red and green rating icons next to news links on search engines and social media feeds, such as Google, Bing, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. These icons indicate trust or lack of trust with detailed ratings for more than 4,000 news websites that account for 95% of online engagement with news. The news sites are evaluated for credibility and transparency using nine criteria (examples: avoidance of deceptive headlines and regularly correcting errors).
  • WhatsApp now limits the number of times you can forward a message, as a way of discouraging the spread of fake news.

Technology does provide hope for fighting fake news and for a more truthful future!

Check the articles below for some useful resources in spotting and fighting fake news.

Additional helpful resources:
How to Spot Fake News (FactCheck)
How to Fight Lies, Tricks and Chaos Online (The Verge)
Fighting Disinformation Online – A Database of Web Tools (Rand Corporation)