While fake content has circulated in tabloids and on the internet for years, the 2016 election has given us a reason to take it seriously. Stories about the Clintons selling weapons to ISIS and Trump winning the popular vote (he didn’t) spread like wildfire, and in some cases outperformed real news.
The false narrative that Pope Francis endorsed Trump garnered a staggering 960,000 engagements on Facebook, more than the Washington Post’s in-depth, non-hoax exploration of Trump’s failed businesses. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the impact of fake news on shaping hearts and minds, studies validate that what we see in social media influences our moods and perceptions.
Moreover, according to a new Pew Survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, 23 percent of Americans say they have shared a fake news story – many knowingly. More troubling? Most teens can’t spot fake news.
According to a Stanford University study, 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story from a legitimate source. While teens may be digital natives, many lack the sophistication to gauge the legitimacy of a source.
The spread of fake news and the ease with which it’s legitimized through social sharing clearly has dire implications for the U.S. electorate and our political process. But how will it impact PR – and how can PR pros take a meaningful stand against the proliferation of fake news?
The Evolution of PR in a Post-Fact Era
Perhaps most obviously, driving awareness of real news will become increasingly challenging, in what President Obama deemed the Post-Fact Era during an interview with The New Yorker. We live in a “new ecosystem,” he argued, “in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on.”
Clickbait’s sole purpose is to generate ad revenue – after all, flashy claims and scandal draw eyeballs. As publishers downsize and fake news sources, such as the Denver Guardian, gain popularity, it will be incumbent on PR professionals to continue to pitch and foster relationships with legitimate news sources.
The rise of fake news is also likely to erode the public’s trust in all media. Earned media has always been persuasive because it offers third-party validation. If PR professionals contribute to creating false narratives and peddling fake facts, we will ultimately help undermine the value of earned media. But there are actionable steps PR professionals can take to combat fake news.
How PR Can Combat Fake News
Provide Sound Facts and Sources to Reporters – While it can be tempting to spin or exaggerate facts, it’s incumbent on PR professionals to provide sound counsel to clients and accurate facts to reporters. Though PR is sometimes referred to as the “dark side” of journalism, it doesn’t need to be.
We can support journalists by providing them with legitimate sources and stories that impact their communities. In fact, some of my most talented and valued coworkers have a background in journalism – we need to support quality journalism in a climate that is increasingly hostile or agnostic to facts.
Pitch Sources that Care about Facts – When we’re building press lists, we can continue to be thoughtful about who we include. While a blogger may provide an easy hit, it’s important to consider the legitimacy and reputation of bloggers and influencers before engaging. This is critical from both a client-service perspective and to help ensure we support legitimate news organizations.
We can also do this in our personal lives, and read content from quality sources that vet and care about facts and attribution.
Support Journalism with Your Wallet – In addition to providing journalists with great stories and sources, we can also subscribe to news sources we value. Earlier this month, The Seattle Times announced staffing cuts as ad revenue fell, echoing an industry-wide trend that has caused layoffs in newsrooms across the country. If there aren’t enough staff, it can be difficult to cover all the stories that matter. And it can be challenging to fact check. (Rolling Stone, I’m looking at you.)
In heartening news for the industry, just one week after Election Day, The New York Times saw a huge boost of 41,000 new digital subscribers. While PR professionals tend to be avid consumers of news to keep abreast of industry trends, we can also personally support the news sources we value by paying for their content.
Don’t Amplify Fake News – In pitches and bylines, we cite facts to substantiate claims. PR professionals can be extremely conscientious when it comes to verifying that the facts they’re citing are accurate. By citing legitimate facts, we also help drive traffic to publications that support good journalism.
In our own social media echo chambers, we can follow similar practices. We can be scrupulous before liking or sharing an article. After all, we stop giving oxygen to fake news when we take a more critical eye to what we share. Embracing facts and shunning opinion masquerading as fact can help foster a culture that values honest, integrity-driven journalism.
The Next Four Years Matter
Media is our bread and butter as an industry, but having robust journalism is also critical to a healthy democracy. These next four years may be tough on journalists, with the president-elect bashing Vanity Fair, The New York Times and others on Twitter.
While PR professionals aren’t journalists, we too play a role in fostering a culture that embraces thoughtful, accurate reporting, both in our personal and professional capacities. Let’s use that role to promote accurate news stories to legitimate sources, helping to amplify journalism at its finest. If trust in journalism is eroded, the demise of PR won’t be far off.