What IS Fake News?


New York Times (Nov. 25, 2016): Mr. Latsabidze (a 22-year-old purveyor of false news online from his computer in Tbilisi Georgia) said he was amazed that anyone could mistake many of the articles he posts for real news, insisting they are simply a form of infotainment that should not be taken too seriously. “I don’t call it fake news; I call it satire,” he said. He avoids sex and violence because they violate Facebook rules, he said, but he sees nothing wrong otherwise with providing readers with what they want.

New York Times (Dec. 15, 2016) Facebook announced that it was introducing a series of experiments to keep misinformation and false articles from being disseminated across its site.


Fake news is much in the headlines these days. What is it? Here’s a Q and A that hopefully shines a light on the subject.

Q. What IS fake news?

Fake news is essentially propaganda under a new name. It is content that is straight-out false, or misleadingly biased, or outrageously ludicrous but also irresistible. Two characteristics define fake news (i.e. propaganda): one, the source is disguised or not easily traceable; and two, its purpose is to deceive, persuade or confuse. Fraudulent news may look or sound authentic, but it isn’t. It is made up, manipulative and intentionally misleading.

(As a public relations professional — and former journalist — I recognize that PR is a form of  fake news in that it represents a point of view or cause. Still, the best PR is open and transparent about its purpose. Fake news isn’t).

Q. Is there a difference between fake news and propaganda?

Fake news and propaganda are synonymous, although propaganda is most often associated with wartime and has long been viewed as a military and political weapon. Fake news, by contrast, may have many purposes. Some fake news is dressed up as “sponsored content,” which is advertising positioned side-by-side with real news. Other forms of fake news are intended to sway public opinion for or against a topical issue, such as climate change. A third form of fake news (political scientists call this one “black propaganda) is the most insidious. It consists of dangerously provocative content, whose source is deliberatively hidden, for the purpose of civic disruption and political upheaval.

Q. Can you give me an example of fake news?

The most glaring recent example were the online stories (supported in social media) that Hillary Clinton and her Presidential campaign manager, John Podesta, were behind a child abuse ring operating out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. The claim was totally and utterly false, but the claim went viral, picked up and repeated by conspiracy-driven websites.

An example of online fake news

Another example of fake news was the assertion in 2015 by an unknown source that a U.S. Army training exercise in Texas was a covert operation in advance of a government-led takeover. The rumor became so widespread that the Governor of Texas ordered the state militia to monitor the Army maneuvers.


Q. So what’s the issue?  Defining Fake news seems pretty cut and dried.

Except it’s not. The Washington Post recently ran an article about alleged Russian hacking of government and political organizations in the U.S. It attributed its findings to a somewhat obscure, little-known online entity. The Columbia Journalism Review, a media watchdog, criticized the Post article, calling it a quintessential example of fake news. But a careful reading showed something else: a legitimate article (in that it was reported and edited by a reputable professional news organization), but with shaky attribution. Instead of fake news, the Post article was a poorly sourced article.

It’s a critical difference. Journalism isn’t sacrosanct. Shoddy reporting or weakly supported claims in supposedly professionally prepared news articles can be misleading or erroneous. But they aren’t fake. Real fake news is content disguised as professional journalism, but which is completely bogus.

Q. Isn’t fake news really in the eye of the beholder?

You hear that a lot, and there’s some truth to it. When news consumers don’t like or agree with what they’re reading — believing it to be slanted or biased — they tend to dismiss it as “fake.” In reality, fake news is neither real or news; instead, it is content purposely designed to deceive.

That said, the emergence of fake or questionable content disguised as news is already having a negative effect. A recent survey revealed that fully two-thirds of respondents admit they are now confused about the veracity of the news they read or hear.

Q. Hasn’t there always been questionable content and fake news?

Yes, and it’s not always evil. The World War II Normandy invasion couldn’t have been pulled off successfully were it not for the Allies’ pre-invasion disinformation campaign that completely tricked the Nazis. More recently, Congress repeatedly has attempted to repeal the inheritance tax (termed the “death tax”) with stories and research showing that the tax is a horrible burden on family farms and small businesses. In fact, the inheritance tax applies to only the richest of the richest families (almost everyone else is exempt). Yet year after year, the media faithfully writes articles about how the tax is ruining the American economy.

What has changed so dramatically is that there are so many more communication channels today available for widespread, even global dissemination of manufactured content. In that regard, the Internet is the perfect environment for falsehood.  It is like a wild west saloon with no sheriff to keep even a semblance of order. Literally anything goes on the online dance floor: facts, falsehoods, lies, propaganda, beauty, art, character assassination, and, yes, made up content disguised as real news.

Q. Can fake news be identified and labeled as such?

There’s a great deal of talk right now about how to do this. The problem is, who’s doing the identifying. A deeper issue is that which forms of fraudulent content to you look for? There are degrees or levels of false news. The challenge is distinguishing the differences. It’s one thing for a guy in Macedonia to spread fake news about a celebrity’s private life. It’s quite another to spot a disinformation campaign launched by a rogue nation (say, North Korea) intended to disrupt another nation’s confidence in its elected leaders.

Facebook has announced it will attempt to identify fake news (using existing fact checking sites such as Snopes and PolitiFact). But how will it deal with corporate or political “information” campaigns that are essentially propaganda and often based on doctored or biased “research?” Will Facebook’s computer algorithms spot as fake news articles (based upon hidden sugar-industry sponsored research) claiming that sugar is good for you?  Will mainstream news media like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal go so far as to call out as fake questionable content by their competitors? Will politicians who are running for office stop putting out blatant falsehoods about their opponents, thus creating a content desert for political columnists?

All we can say for certain is that the world is struggling with a fake news virus that threatens verifiable truth and unquestioned reliability. The real issue, and the real danger of fake news, is that it appears to be moving beyond the spreading of fraudulent content, as the survey mentioned above reflects. Fake news is becoming a weapon against veracity and represents an assault on truth — or more precisely, trust. If people begin to think that they can’t trust anything they read or hear, and some of what passes as news these days is intended to do just that, where does that lead us?




Have we arrived at the dawn of fake news replacing reality?

One would think so, given some unsettling fake news incidents over the past few weeks. Like the pizza shop in Northwest Washington, D.C. that has been assaulted by online social media posters (and one crackpot with an assault rifle) claiming that the restaurant is at the center of a child sex abuse ring managed by Hillary Clinton. Or the baseless statement by President-elect Donald Trump that more than three million illegals voted in the Nov. 8 election, a claim that prompted perhaps the most twisted rationale ever spoken by a public figure: “I don’t know that it’s not true,” said Republican National Committee Chair Rance Priebus.

Fake News Reports that Our Government Planned this Attack

Or, more sadly, the incredibly false claims, spread online as fact, that the U.S. government planned the 9/11 attacks and the massacre of little students and teachers in Connecticut in 2012.

Who’d believe this crap, right? And yet surveys and man-on-the-street interviews suggest that factless information is the new normal in news. For some, spreading lies, false rumors and slanderous opinions is a way to take revenge on the mainstream news media. For others, it’s part and parcel of a global strategy to disrupt American institutions and businesses. And for others, it’s pure mischief-making — but with potentially dangerous consequences.

Today’s misinformation peddlers not only laugh at truth and accuracy, they delight in spreading completely made up – totally false – information intended to destroy a person’s standing in the community, a company’s brand equity, or a non-profit’s good intentions.

Whatever the rationale, fake news is a terrible development for anyone who believes in the rule of law and and the necessity for rational discourse. Disinformation poses an immediate threat to organizations of all types, from corporations to nonprofits to the justice system and electoral politics, as well as to individuals in the public eye, such as CEOs, political candidates, and news reporters and editors.

Fraudulent content in the guise of professionally reported news couldn’t come at a worse time for daily journalism. Traditional media — newspapers, especially — are caught in a perfect storm of negative currents from declining ad revenues and increased competition from online content providers. Worse still, journalists are held in ill repute by the general public. These factors are worrisome in the short and long term as media properties delve into such remedies as “sponsored content” and click bait articles, while also laying off newsroom staff. Without reliable content, there’s little reason for newspapers to survive.

Think of fake news as a cancer mestastizing inside the Internet. The primary vehicle for lies is fake or disguised social media accounts, along with ersatz websites that are nothing more than propaganda outlets for the spewing of negative, jaw-dropping nastiness — the more incredible, the better. When the disinformation reaches the mainstream media, where the editorial gatekeepers of the past have been supplanted by clickbait marketers, you can end up with viral fakery that raises doubts about the veractity of anything you read or hear.

Well, you say, so what? If it’s not directed at me personally, no harm, no foul, and it’s kind of fun, like reading the National Enquirer without feeling guilty.

Think again. What happens if fake news planted on the Internet claims that the baby food you just fed to your infant is contaminated with dangerous metal shards? How will you feel as you ride your commuter train to work when word spreads on social media that there’s a bomb onboard. How would you like to be flying on a plane when news — false news — breaks that the airline you’re on has serious safety problems that could lead to catastrophic crashes.

Of course, there are laws on the books to protect against acts of yelling fire in a crowded theater. But here’s the problem (or several problems): first, it’s very difficult to identify and stop the bad actors who are spreading the misinformation.  Proving willful intent to lie or deceive is also a significant hurdle; and then there’s the practical challenge of deciding whether to press a case, and pay the costs, of going after anonymous online posters who could be anyone, anywhere, from a kid in a basement in Milwaukee to a government agent in Moscow?

It’s sort of like shadow boxing: you can see your opponent, but he or she is elusive, just out of reach. And how would you ever obtain justice or satisfaction from lies that ruined your business or personal reputation when the perpetrator is a computer whiz in Macedonia who owns 400 servers worldwide and thousands of phony social media accounts? The fact is, you won’t.

Bummer. But is there nothing you can do? Well, yes.

My company, Bernish Communications, LLC, specializes in crisis communications of just this sort. I’ve helped Fortune 500 firms and startups, as well as prominent business executives, deal with challenges to their reputations, their brands or their public image. I use tried and true communications strategies to undo the damage and prevent damage from happening.

In a follow-up post, I’ll review some ideas that will help companies and organizations cope with fraudulent news. For now, understand that the spread of fake news poses a threat to a basic tenet of civilization: the trust we must have in each other and in the institutions of society. When we begin feeling that we cannot trust anything we read or hear, we become suspicious and fraught, vulernable to outlandish conspiracies and anxious about the motivations of those in positions of trust or leadership.

The emergence of fake news represents an enormous new challenge for any organization, public or private, large or small, as well as every citizen and every voter. Yet there is this belief to fall back on: lies thrive when they go unchallenged. When they’re challenged and exposed, truth more often than not can win out.



Guidance Issued on Preventive Controls for Human Food

The Food and Drug Administration has issued a partial guidance report on preventive controls for human food — a key section of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Peanut ButterThe report is FDA’s “current thinking” on the requirement of food manufacturers to conduct a thorough hazard analysis, from which a comprehensive Food Safety Plan then must be prepared. Specifically, the guidance report issued involves actions manufacturers should take to implement risk-based preventive controls for human food (PCHF). The guidance is intended to help manufacturers comply with the following specific PCHF requirements in the new food safety law:

A written food safety plan (FSP);
Hazard analysis;
Preventive controls;
Corrective actions;
Verification; and
Associated records.

This guidance covers the first five chapters of what will be a total of 14 chapters covering all aspects of FSMA. The remaining chapters will be rolled out periodically.

The FDA issues guidance reports on a regular basis to enable interested parties to comment, suggest and request changes to regulations. The agency refers to this guidance as its “current thinking” on the subject, not its final regulations. To download the initial PCHF guidance, go the FDA’s website.


A Safer Food Supply?

Will the nation’s food supply be safer under FSMA?

The new Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, which takes full effect in September, has a multitude of goals, but foremost of these is insuring that the nation’s food supply (human and animal) is safe – safer than it already is. Will the new law do that?

That was certainly the motivation for passage of FSMA in 2011. Congress recognized that the vast American food supply from farm to table was very safe, but also persistently vulnerable to microbiological contamination, accidents, and terrorist threats. FSMA addresses these dangers directly and indirectly. Here are three of the primary goals behind the new food safety regulations.

1. Responding to the new realities of a global food chain. America’s food supply throughout much of its history has been largely self-contained: American growers, ranchers and manufacturers accounted for the vast majority of food items available to consumers. But it was never 100% domestic: Coffee from Africa and Central America; winter produce from Mexico; Canadian wheat, spice from Southeast Asia. As the consumer palate has become more varied and reflective of diverse cultures, our food supply is incredibly global in scale. FSMA is intended to insure that all food items and ingredients coming from overseas are subject to stringent safety protocols.
foodmfg2. Placing more aggressive regulations on suppliers, not just manufacturers. If the world’s food supply were envisioned as an iceberg, the portion above the water line would represent manufacturers, processors, and retailers. The portion of the iceberg below water – by far the largest segment – would represent the thousands upon thousands of suppliers that play a pivotal but often overlooked role in food safety. It’s a supply chain that is both widespread and granular in scope: it includes makers of conveyor equipment, as well as suppliers of lubricants for that equipment.

3. Preventing food safety issues rather than relying upon government intervention only when there’s a problem, is at the very heart of FSMA, and one that should have the most immediate and beneficial impact on food safety over time. That’s because, for the first time, food manufacturers and processors, along with their supply chain partners, have clear direction in preventing food contamination by creating and maintaining a food safe environment up and down the supply line. One requirement alone – having in place a comprehensive food safety plan – is perhaps the single most significant of all of FSMA’s many regulations.
Of course, maintaining a 100 percent safe food supply is literally impossible. But as an aspirational goal, FSMA represents forward thinking on the part of the government and the food industry, both of which have an obvious, vested interest in producing and selling products that are as safe as they can possibly be.


Say No to Raw Dough

My wife and daughter occasionaly will snack on raw cookie dough before baking a batch of cookies. I’ve warned them several times not to do that, because raw flour can be contaminated with e.coli and salmonella bacteria (from raw eggs in the flour), both of which can make you very sick.  But my warnings have generally gone unheeded. I’m sure ours is not the only household with a cookie dough fetish.

Yet there is a larger point to be made about raw dough: it’s an issue that should focus more responsbility for food safety on consumers themselves.

cookie1Food safety is by and large the responsibility of manufacturers, processors and retailers. The new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) places a legal responsibility for safe food on the industry.  Manufacturing plants must create and maintain a detailed food safety plan, as must their ingredient suppliers. The whole idea behind FSMA is to prevent food-borne illnesses and costly recalls, rather than wait for a contamination outbreak.

Not nearly as much discussed is the responsibility of food consumers to know the risks of certain items, like raw dough, in part because outbreaks have been infrequent. Food with raw dough carries warnings not to eat the product before baking, but more aggressive efforts to warn households to carefully read food labels and preparation directions have not been nearly as prominent as, for example, campaigns to persuade consumers to read nutrition labels.

Recently, 10 million pounds of a well-known flour brand was recalled due to safety concerns over the presence of an e.coli strain that is present in flour in its raw stage. No one has died, thankfully, but more than 40 consumers have reported illness and 11 people have been hospitalized with intestinal problems. (One reason for the recall was the practice of some pizza restuarants to let children eat raw dough while waiting for their pies). The recall was initiated out of an abundance of caution to, in effect, protect consumers from themselves. That’s a new concept in food safety recalls; seldom has the FDA pointed a warning finger at food consumers.

That may be changing in the years ahead as manufacturers and regulators gingerly try to get consumers to play their part in preventing food borne illnesses. Maybe a place to launch would be a public awareness campaign about raw dough. Here’s a suggestion for messaging: “Say No to Raw Dough!”