There was a time, not too long ago, that ‘news’ meant ‘facts’ and more specifically, the factual reporting of events. There have always been comedic sketches, celebrity ‘gossip’ columns and political satire but at the top line level, there was the ‘news’ and there then there was everything else (non-news).
So what is fake news exactly and how is it affecting corporates?
The manipulation and even creation of events in order to drive media coverage is not a modern phenomenon, but the outright creation of ‘facts’ to drive popular opinion is a worrying development.
It has been argued that this is nonsensical, that facts cannot be simply created out of imagination, a statement is either fact, fiction or opinion. If something didn’t happen or is untrue, then it cannot be deemed a fact.
But then 2016 happened. The year of ‘Post-Truth’. Accorded word-of-the-year status by Oxford Dictionaries, ‘Post-Truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
As a result we have found ourselves in a situation where ‘news’ has come to be defined more broadly as information for popular consumption and this news may be true, or false – based on genuine facts or ‘fake’ facts.
Largely this can be attributed to the declining control traditional mainstream media has over the news agenda thanks to the rise of social media as a medium for news sharing. Recent research coming out of the Pew Research Centre in the US cites that 62% of adults get their news from social media (up from just 49% in 2012).
The issue here is that, unlike with journalist-produced news, citizen journalism is not subject to regulation, monitoring or indeed any level of fact-verification. There are now thousands of websites, blogs and social media profiles dedicated to the creation and proliferation of ‘fake news’ – many are mocked-up to look like the official websites they are seeking to imitate, while others are more clearly satirical rip offs.
Often the content they produce will be grounded in reality, blurring the lines between degrees of truth and figments of imagination.
The election of Donald Trump has been cited as a victory for the fake news craze, with his popularity spurred on by inaccuracies and false claims about his rival for the White House, Hillary Clinton. One story in particular illustrates the dangerous repercussions of fake news: Pizzagate. A story spread on Facebook claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from a Washington pizzeria, which led to a local man opening fire in the restaurant with a semi-automatic weapon – fortunately no one was harmed.
But it would be unfair to claim fake news always worked to Trump’s benefit. For example, one of the widest read ‘fake’ news stories comes from a 1998 Donald Trump interview:
In 1998 Donald Trump was interviewed by ‘Paper’ Magazine and he did indeed discuss his future political aspirations. However, at no point did he say that Republicans are “the dumbest group of voters”.
Politicians of all ideologies and from all corners of the world have condemned ‘fake news’ but only, it seems, when the ‘Post-Truth’ machines are operating against them. Both US Presidential candidates remained quiet on the subject until the results had been declared, at which point losing candidate Hillary Clinton warned of the “epidemic” that has “real world consequences”. Donald Trump withheld his outburst until he turned on CNN during the publication of a secret report linking him to ‘sexual perversion’ in a Moscow hotel room.
In Europe the leader of the populist Italian Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, started 2017 with a declaration that the establishment of mainstream media was “manufacturing false news” to prevent his anti-European movement from building up any momentum among the electorate.
Yet the following day, when facing accusations that it was Five-Star-controlled blogs and social media accounts peddling the fake news endemic in Italy, Beppe Grillo challenged the definition of ‘fact’ by declaring: let citizen juries decide if news is true.
What does ‘fake news’ mean for business?
Companies’ early reaction to fake news was to ignore it, to invest in ways of establishing fact from fiction and then sifting out the false articles as irrelevant, with no need to monitor them further.
However, as the aforementioned political examples show, in the Post-Truth era an article’s authenticity isn’t a metric by which to measure impact and importance – Hilary Clinton wasn’t running a child sex ring from a Washington pizzeria, but that didn’t stop a man travelling across the country to open fire on said restaurant.
It is therefore paramount that companies seek to understand the full suite of stakeholder perceptions – both those based on truth and those that are misinformed – that make up their public image.
In addition, companies must keep abreast of fake news in order to rectify any false claims and to lessen the impact such claims could have on their social standing.
In 2017 it is not just the authenticity of news that we must consider, but the rate at which it spreads, and the impact it has on shaping the way we view the world around us.