News and social media can readily be coopted for malicious intent, ranging from taking your money, to damaging a company’s reputation, to political gain. While the internet has many positive functions, it can also act as a fertilizer for untruths.
Just last month, photos of an adorable baby albino bat went viral. It wasn’t long before Russian felting artist Anna Yastrezhembovskya interjected on Instagram, setting the record straight on the scammers who stole her images. “Now they are ‘selling’ the white bat. Please be careful,” she wrote. The fraudsters deceived some into believing the realistic-looking wool toy was an endangered animal, and fooled others into thinking the toy was for sale on their own website, sending buyers nothing in return for their money. One visit to the “Fauxtography” section of Snopes.com will show you just how common this scenario is.
We discussed misinformation and disinformation with Jim O’Leary, Global Practice Chair, Corporate Affairs and Advisory Services with Edelman; Lisa Seidenberg, Vice President of Media Relations with Greentarget; and Michael Estevez, Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis Communications with BCW.
They provided five tips to manage the fast-spreading weed of false information:
- Understand motivation. While they may have the same effect on reputation, misinformation and disinformation are distinguished by intent. The sharer of misinformation believes the falsehood to be true. The sharer of disinformation manufactures it to intentionally spread a lie. A communication campaign is probably enough to combat misinformation, while disinformation will likely require a more extensive approach, Estevez cautions.
- Know how disinformation spreads. Determining the root cause of a falsehood’s proliferation is key in fighting back. O’Leary explains, “Disinformation travels five times faster than factual information online.” Information that is simply stated, seemingly credible, affirms a popular opinion, or brand new can indicate effective disinformation.
- Start listening. Disinformation typically originates “in the fringes of the internet or on the dark web,” O’Leary says. He recommends monitoring and, in some cases, intervening in this sector of the internet. Expand your monitoring services to include the dark web. Keep an eye on malicious sites by using dark web crawlers or fake news monitoring services, which track hundreds of websites and provide real-time alerts if disinformation appears to be headed mainstream.
- Change your narrative. Be prepared. Really understand who may target the company, why, and their positioning to plan your response ahead of time. If needed, alter your communication to address a molehill before it becomes a mountain. “[Brands] need to have a strategy and develop messaging, responses, and safeguards so, when an attack occurs, they're ready to go,” says Seidenberg. Use excerpts from your crisis communications plan as a starting point for addressing false information.
- Leverage your support network. While businesses need to come to their own defense, endorsements and opinions from credible third parties can be invaluable. But you must start building those relationships now. ‘Make friends before you need them’ is a maxim of crisis communications. “Nobody is going to risk their own reputation and credibility for an organization, and in a situation they’re not familiar with,” says Estevez.
False information has always existed, but today’s online tools and human behavior provide fertile ground for untrue stories to take hold quickly. However, with the right proactive and reactive tools, PR professionals can defend a company’s character.
Download our whitepaper, Defending the Truth: How PR pros fight disinformation
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