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.
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.