How to thrive in a world of fake news

31st March 2017

Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. Whichever phrase you prefer, barely a day goes by, now, without the nature of news itself being the headline.

How did we get here? It’s something of a perfect storm: ever-evolving technology and platforms have altered human behaviour; content is discovered and shared in shorter cycles on new formats; there is huge global political uncertainty; we live under the threat of terrorism and shifting socioeconomics; and trust in media and brands is at an all-time low.

This chaos has led to a brand new set of challenges for business leaders, brand guardians, politicians, journalists and consumers of content to navigate.

Weber Shandwick explored the fake news phenomenon in our panel session at AdWeek Europe last week in London: “Navigating the New Abnormal: A Brand Survival Kit in a World of Fake News”.

Our UK Head of Public Affairs Joey Jones (former Deputy Political Editor at Sky News), Editor-in-Chief Vivian Schiller (former Global Chair of News at Twitter and Chief Digital Officer at NBC News) and Head of Social, EMEA Danny Whatmough were joined on stage by BBC News Digital Development Director James Montgomery and BuzzFeed UK’s Political Editor Jim Waterson.

It’s clear that technology is driving and enabling the growth and spread of fake news. What we see in our social media feeds is driven by what we’ve engaged with in the past and what our friends are engaging with. Algorithms enclose us in a “filter bubble” where our confirmation bias drives us to stories we are predisposed to believe, regardless of veracity.

It’s extremely likely that those who were surprised by recent political events in Europe and the U.S. were not seeing what those with a different view were reading, saying and sharing. We’re effectively living in different realities depending on where we sit on the political spectrum, or in regard to any big news topic.

According to a 2016 Digital News Report by Reuters Institute for Journalism, we’re happy for the news we see to be picked for us: 36% of us are happy for news to be automatically selected for us based on what we’ve read before; 30% are happy to see news based on the judgement of editors or journalists; and 22% are happy for news to be automatically selected for us based on what our friends have consumed.

It’s worth noting, however, that the survey was carried out pre-Brexit and the U.S. election, so it will be interesting to see if things change.

So what do we mean by fake news? We’re all bandying the phrase around as if it is a clear-cut, universally-understood notion, but its definition is broader and more nuanced than you might think. According to First Draft, a non-profit focused on the challenges of trust and truth in the digital age, there is a “Scale of Intent” to the complexity of misinformation and disinformation:

  • Satire and parody (no intention to cause harm but has the potential to fool)
  • False connection (when headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content – eg some clickbait)
  • Misleading content (Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual)
  • False context (when genuine content is shared with false contextual information)
  • Imposter content (when genuine sources are impersonated)
  • Manipulated content (When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive)
  • Fabricated content (new content, that is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm).

But the biggest problem isn’t actually pure “fake news”, according to BuzzFeed’s Waterson: it’s the middle ground: “In the UK, for example, we don’t have completely false stories going viral. What we do have is hyper-partisan websites and headlines that stretch facts to the absolute limit. They are not completely made up, but they are in the category of fake news.

“From a brand perspective, once something with a kernel of truth has been RT’d a million times, it becomes the news, and comment pieces are out before anyone has fact-checked the original story. Even when you delete a post or tweet on your own channels, someone will have screen-grabbed it. Speed is critical. If you don’t kill it in minutes, you’re stuffed.”

At the BBC, Montgomery agrees that the middle ground is the danger area for companies and brands: “What’s really changed is this issue of false context: a CEO can say something that is taken out of context and amplified; suddenly you have a comms crisis on your hands. It’s much worse now because of the speed that content can travel, and the amplification of social media. The original message is lost, but the story is all over the internet in no time.”

He adds that the BBC is putting greater emphasis on fact checking to meet this challenge: “We’re providing more rigour. It’s no longer enough to simply report what politicians and public figures say, and take it at face value: there are times when we need to put it in context, and explain why it might not be true, or why others might disagree strongly.”

Faced with this challenging communications scenario, it’s no surprise that many brands and CEOs are keen to stay out of anything remotely contentious. But these days, it’s not that easy.

As our social media guru on the panel, Danny Whatmough, says, fake news is putting a number of things beyond brands’ control: “There’s the reputational impact of being associated with fake news, the potential backlash, the problem of issuing releases that might be wrongly interpreted, plus ‘fake news’ as a phrase can now be used as a counter-argument for any brand communications.”

He adds that there may even be a knock-on effect on campaign strategy, tone and creativity: “Brands are having to think about how they approach campaigns, and anything that might start to look like they are tricking the public. They are having to be careful around parody, satire and humour, for instance. It’s like everything has been politicised overnight.”

Our Editor-in-Chief Vivian Schiller says staying out of the debate is not really an option for brands anymore: “Something that would have been anodyne two years ago is now a political statement. We’ve have had nothing short of a civic awakening: people who have never protested in their lives are protesting. It’s been astounding and there is a lot of pressure on brands as a result. What are you going to say about relevant new legislation, for instance? You can’t sit on the sidelines.”

The antidote to fake news is probably the same as it was when we used to call it propaganda: journalists being committed to the truth, and marketers being true to brands’ core values. As broadcasting journalism pioneer Edward Murrow said in 1963: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

Murrow was speaking about journalism but, as Schiller points out, this is an enduring call-to-action for brands and agencies, too: “It’s absolutely relevant to how we speak to customers and our target audiences. We are in the communications and dialogue business, and you can’t do that without being believable, credible or truthful.”

At BuzzFeed, Waterson agrees: “Reputations can be destroyed in seconds but you can’t build a reputation that is sustainable in such a short amount of time. Companies need to double down on efforts to build brands that are credible, and speak to audiences in an authentic way.”

Brands are also likely to have more confidence in their ability to handle a fake news crisis if they are prepared. As Whatmough says: “Brands are familiar with crisis communications planning but often their plans are hidden away on a 100-page deck somewhere in a drawer. When an issue suddenly arises and you have seconds to respond, those plans can’t always be found or relied upon.

“It’s about testing, testing, testing: everyone from the CEO to the social media manager dry-running and learning from crisis preparedness exercises. It’s about having that anchor in place, being nimble and understanding that waters can get choppy.”

Another hurdle to overcome is the global breakdown in trust in every type of societal establishment, from governments and public institutions, to business and the media.

“There is a crisis of public trust,” says Montgomery, “but when it really matters, I think the public does distinguish between news that is truthful, and news that is more like entertainment. A cornerstone of the BBC is that you can trust it. On big news days, we still have the biggest traffic, which gives me grounds for hope that people do still want to know what’s real.”

At the end of the AdWeek Europe session, Joey Jones asked the panel to consider what the future might have in store: in a year’s time, what will have changed about the current environment?

The consensus was that the social media and search platforms will have found a way to shave off the worst fake news culprits and will increase tagging of fake news, and that the market is likely to self-correct to a certain extent.

However, it will be impossible to remove or flag 100% of manufactured “news”, we’re likely to have a lot more examples of brands getting unstuck, and we’re all – brands, agencies and the media – going to have to work hard to preserve the integrity of the news landscape.

In the meantime, where does the fake news phenomenon leave the media? For me, BuzzFeed’s Waterson hit the nail on the head when he said: “It’s going two ways: we’re seeing the worst dross that’s ever been written, but we also have universal access to the best journalism of any age”.