Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Mark Twain is rumoured to have once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can even put its boots on.” Regardless of whether he was the maxim’s original author or not, the sentiment has a known historical legacy which still holds true today.

It’s not that falsehoods in and of themselves are more likely to be shared, but rather that the nature of their content is usually more inflammatory (and captivating): think scandal, gossip and conspiracy.

But if the phenomenon of spreading mistruths isn’t something new, then what has all the hype been about recently? And why is this concerning from a brand-integrity perspective?

Does fake news really exist?

“Fake news” has evolved into an umbrella term for a number of distinct types of factually incorrect reporting. My focus in this article is on the intentional misrepresentation or complete fabrication of news stories to serve a social, financial or political agenda (barring satire, of course) – in other words, deliberate misinformation or propaganda created to deceive readers by disguising these as authentic news.

The issue of fake news is extensive. During the US presidential elections last year, a study by BuzzFeed News found that the top 20 fake news articles drew higher engagement than the top 20 authentic news articles on Facebook. Topping the list were fake stories that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump and that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to Isis. As a consequence, many political pundits now believe that the proliferation of fake news influenced the outcome of the elections themselves.

Closer to home, the Daily Maverick reported finding counterfeit accounts of Huffington Post SA, Radio 702 and The Sunday Times, as well as over 100 Twitter accounts of individual users that were fake. Other notable cases include fake reports about editor and journalist Ferial Haffajee through manipulated photos and sensationalist headlines.

Advancing a political agenda is no doubt a driving force behind fake news, but an arguably more concerning motive that has serious implications for brands stems from the present model of online advertising. Websites registered with ad networks that are able drive significant traffic to their content are rewarded, and often handsomely – therein lies the incentive for scammers and the fuel for fake news.

To drive clicks and shares, fraudsters make use of outlandish headlines and prompts, such as: “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” or other “clickbaity” titles that aim to exploit human emotions such as fear, anger and happiness. This often deliberately taps into the collective consciousness of a targeted demographic and breathes life into the stories they wish were true. Both Facebook and Google have already taken steps toward addressing the problem, but until there’s a viable solution, regular brands and businesses stand to end up on the wrong side of misinformation.

Armouring brands against fake news

Warren Buffett has been quoted as saying: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”

Today, however, you need not do anything at all and can still end up the victim of a public relations crisis. While traditional journalism believes in the rigour of fact checking and editorial processes, social media does not, and that means your reputation lies in the hands of anyone with an Internet connection and malicious intent (or even a misinformed perspective).

Be it deliberately crafted or unintentionally created, the consequences of fake news for brands and businesses can be all too real. Look no further than the “Pizzagate” scandal – a small Washington pizzeria faced public backlash and even staff death threats after an elaborate conspiracy hoax perpetuated on social media. In another example, bus company Coach USA found itself enduring a furore from the American public off the back of a single misguided Tweet that suggested the business was involved in anti-Trump protests.

The reality is that fake news is a threat to be taken seriously, and any business that’s not actively taking measures to prepare for that eventuality is leaving itself vulnerable to crisis.

Should fake news arise, one must deal with it at its source. If it’s a Facebook post, comment on the thread directly. If it’s a rogue Tweet, reply on Twitter. Take your side of the story to where the conversation is happening. Keeping tabs on mentions in this way will require social media monitoring tools to be used effectively.

Educate your market, and share resources that educate current and potential customers about how to differentiate legitimate news from stories that are bogus. As a start, encourage the use of fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com to ensure your audience is being more sceptical in the way it consumes media.

Get the C-suite involved. Personalising messaging is paramount. When it comes to fighting fake news that’s affected your brand, an authentic and concise tweet from a CEO can often have more of an impact than a lofty press release that fails to connect with people.

The big take-out: Meltwater Africa’s Matthew Barclay discusses what fake news means for brand integrity and suggests ways to deal with it.

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