We live in a world where the rules of news have changed dramatically. As the dominance of traditional media outlets has declined, today’s media is increasingly consumed through social media platforms, free online news outlets and other sources. A lot has been reported about the rise of fake news in this new world, mainly in the context of US political campaigns, but are companies properly prepared for the threat presented by fake news stories?
Fake news articles are harder to distinguish than most people think. According to a survey by Channel 4 only four percent of people can distinguish between Fake News and the truth.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, fake news has been around for many years. But it has certainly become more prevalent in the age of complex online advertising algorithms, where revenues are driven by website traffic. Many news outlets focus on “clickbait” articles, designed to flourish on social media platforms. The more compelling the headline, the more likely content will be shared online and visited on the news site.
European governments have begun to crack down on fake news, Germany has threatened social media companies with large fines (€50m) if they fail to remove fake news. In the UK, during a recent parliamentary enquiry into fake news, the Conservative MP Damian Collins expressed concerns around the “growing phenomenon of fake news.”
In parallel to this, Google is changing the way its search engine works to help prevent the spread of fake news. These actions have been followed by Facebook, which is taking measures to alert users to untrustworthy news stories and encouraging them not to share these posts.
But few believe the crackdown on fake news outlets will be enough to address the problem adequately. This means companies need to be ready to counter fake news for the long term.
The characteristic that is most disturbing about fake news is its speed: stories can ambush companies from nowhere and become a serious problem very quickly. For example, in 2015 a mimic newswire site posted a hoax story claiming that Twitter was considering a $31bn takeover. The report of the story was quickly shared online and within hours the social media giant’s share price rocketed, before returning to a modest rise after the company confirmed that the story was fake. The stock was the second most traded on the New York Stock Exchange that day.
Last year the French construction company, Vinci, had to confront a story circulating around in the form of a fake press release, stating that it would restate its accounts and sack its Chief Financial Officer. Vinci’s share price fell by more than 19% before recovering to a four percent drop after the company had informed investors that the story wasn’t real.
Beyond revenue generation, there are a variety of motivations encouraging outlets to publish fake news. These include activists aiming to undermine an organisation or an individual’s credibility or reputation, rogue investors looking to manipulate a company’s share price.
What should companies do to combat fake news?
Crises are played out in many ways, but the best way to mitigate them is to have a strategy in place ahead of an incident – this is particularly true in the context of fake news. It is important to prepare for a fake news situation, to monitor the online world in real time, and to train people to respond to an online crisis:
- Conducting an audit and setting up monitoring is a key step which will help identify risks that are specific to any business. The approach should include the live monitoring of online news outlets and social media team channels. This will enable the team to evaluate the severity of a fake news situation and develop a strategic response, before things spiral out of control.
- Preparation & content development ensures that the crisis response team is able to quickly assemble a team who know their roles and can activate a real-time response. This could involve highlighting trusted sources on specific issues, deploying optimised content that outranks inaccurate news or in extreme cases, engaging a media lawyer to ensure fake news content is addressed at source using defamation law.
- Finally training for any crisis is crucial. It is important to have crisis training that is interactive and takes into account all of the channels of communication, speed and sensitivity of fake news situations.