If you were on social media at all during the months leading up to the election, you’ve probably seen it more than once. An attention-grabbing headline about one of the candidates and a link to an article from an official-sounding “news” outlet.
But, the impact of fake news is defining the media landscape beyond politics. To put the phenomenon in context, fake news is nothing new. If we call fake news what it really is, propaganda, there are many examples of how it has been used to influence populations for years, including both sides of the WWII battle.
Ed Bernays, who is often referred to as the “father of public relations,” believed that when people didn’t have the time or means for critical thought they would fall back on their emotions and feelings when making decisions. Those emotions are easily stimulated by propaganda, manipulating people to desired beliefs and actions.
Online social media, which wasn’t around in Bernays’ time, provides a platform to spread propaganda much farther, at light speed, and gives fake news more credibility as readers scan headlines while scrolling through their news feeds. Social media also allows individuals to share that content quickly and broadly, without necessarily having read all of it themselves.
The growth of fake news on social platforms presents new challenges for brands, giving communicators reasons to lay awake at night. The Public Relations Society of America reports 64 percent of U.S. adults say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion — a perception shared across incomes, education levels, party affiliations and other demographic factors.
Why should your brand be wary of fake news and how can you prevent associating with it? Here’s some perspective:
Your brand could become a target of fake news.
From a PR perspective, the first concern is that your brand becomes victim of a fake news posting. Snopes.com is full of brands who have been accused of being harmful or doing bad things, like the false rumor about Swiffer being dangerous to pets. The relative ease of building fake news sites means what at one time were rumors spread between friends and neighbors can quickly become full-blown crisis communications situations. Social media monitoring and crisis communication plans need to be adjusted to factor in fake news.
Your company’s online ads show up on a fake news site.
The advent of programmatic digital ad buys means advertisers don’t always have control over where their messages show up. Marketers need to examine what sites their ads could hit and determine if they are reputable sites or if they are unwittingly funding a fake news operation. Ad Age recently reported on ad-fraud fighters who are being hired by brands to avoid their ads being placed on fake news websites.
Diminished credibility of traditional media outlets.
In a post-truth world perception equals truth. Traditional earned media outlets have been devalued. If fake news persists this may mean, eventually, that getting a media hit in a national publication like The New York Times won’t have the value it once did. Your brand’s credibility is enhanced by the credibility of the media associated with it and it is to marketers’ benefit that the value of news media is preserved.
Unfortunately, propaganda in the form of fake news – and those who fuel its success – isn’t going away soon. But proactive PR and discerning market leadership can help mitigate the chance that your brand is tarnished.