The internet has created an environment for fake news – the PR industry must fight back

By Simon Coughlin, Senior Account Director

1989 was a ground-breaking year for technology. Intel released the 486 series of microprocessor, paving the way for the next generation of more powerful PCs, while Microsoft launched its Office suite, David Levy was the first master chess player to be defeated by a computer (the ancestor of what we now know as machine learning), and Nintendo unveiled the iconic GameBoy.

But perhaps most significantly, 1989 was the year that Sir Tim Berners-Lee drafted a proposal that would launch the world wide web on society.

Berners-Lee has marked the 29th anniversary of his invention by attacking the dominance of a few big tech companies. He warned that while the internet was once made up of a wide selection of blogs and websites, it is now “compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms”. This, he said, has led to repercussions including fake accounts stoking social tensions. And one could argue that it’s also led to a less democratic, accessible and fair web.

While companies such as Twitter and Facebook are making efforts to fix these issues, Berners-Lee has suggested that a legal or regulatory framework may be required.

The growth of the internet over the past 29 years has certainly revolutionised the way that we communicate and has had a significant impact on the role of journalists and, in turn, the PR industry.

While the topic of ‘fake news’ — deliberate misinformation intended to mislead an audience — has only been prevalent in the news agenda for a handful of years, it has existed for many decades and impacted both professions. It is the growth of internet use globally, the rise of social media and the dominance of alt-right movements that have combined to increased its influence.

A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that fake news travels faster than legitimate reports. The study found that false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories are. It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the MIT study found that the spread of false stories was more pronounced for political news — targeting voters — than for news in the other categories.

Anyone working in B2B PR could be forgiven for thinking that fake news is not an issue. Think again — fake news is just as likely to have an influence in the B2B world as it does with consumers. So how can PR practitioners help clients fight back against when fake news strikes? Here are just three suggestions:

  1. Prepare: ensure your client or company has well developed, verified and responsive social media channels. And ensure you have planned out responses to confidently address and dampen down any inaccurate questions or stories
  2. Listen: understand who your influencers are and keep track of what they are saying. Ensure your monitoring tools are fit for purpose
  3. React: be ready to respond quickly when fake news begins to spread. Make sure you know which stakeholders to communicate to and be prepared to engage with media covering the story

While it is positive that campaigners such as Berners-Lee are calling for regulation to clamp down on false allegations, in the meantime, those working in PR have a key role to play to ensure that clients keep track of malicious stories. Failure to do so risks undoing all the good work that professionals working in-house and in agencies do.