Fake news has been making the news recently – most notably with Facebook fielding criticism that it played a role in disseminating fake news around the US election.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined steps last month to combat fake news dissemination on the social media site. These focused on improving the ability to detect misinformation, making it easier to report hoaxes and false stories and labelling stories other users have flagged as false.

Social bubbles
Humans are creatures of habit. We ‘follow’ or ‘like’ people and groups on social media and their updates are fed back into our personal timelines. Our timelines and news feeds are populated by the people, topics and news that align with our own views. A timeline become a closed loop or ‘bubble’ reflecting purely our own interests. When something we don’t agree with happens to invade that bubble we ignore it – check out Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, we really do!

I recently observed something similar on my own Facebook feed. Two people, who will remain anonymous, were sharing and commenting their horror that the UK would be banning the use of un-environmentally friendly two-stroke engine motorcycles.

The article goes on to quote a recent ‘EU Directive’ and the UK Secretary of Transport.

Classic biking enthusiasts were outraged – how would they ever be able to enjoy a Sunday ride full of high revs accompanied by the smell of fuel and oil? One outraged gentleman even posts: “Daft sods, I have to wonder how many of these so-called EU directives are our own government but blame the EU!”

Needless to say, none of this was true. The website exists to create fake news items to “prank” their friends.

In fact this is nothing new. Pre-social media we had mockumentaries epitomized by the BBC’s spaghetti-tree hoax –  a three-minute report broadcast on April Fools’ Day 1957 by the BBC current-affairs programme Panorama, purportedly showing a family in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the family “spaghetti tree”. Viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees. Decades later CNN called this broadcast “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled”.[1]

It’s just the fog horn of social media has made it all more viral – and dangerous. It’s big business and can be used to influence and sway opinions. Witness the city in Macedonia which made a bundle from advertising the stories on Facebook.

But what can we do?

Companies in the B2B world could very easily be the victims of fake news. For mainstream media, where damages are perceived to have been incurred, there are tried and tested litigation-based processes in place. But in the age of social media, the remedies are not so straightforward.

Most companies have an active social presence and large followings, all are susceptible to being victims of bogus articles. The key is in an old saying we have at IBA – “never allow anyone to lie about you.” This includes lying to your target audience, so any fake news items should be dealt with.

First step try to have the news removed –  but it might be a long-term task. So instant reaction is important. Issue a direct rebuttal via the same media and posts on the company website to ensure anyone investigating the story soon arrives at the truth.

Yes, like it or not, we’ll get more regulation

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Instagram all have some work to do to allow users to specifically report a post as fake news.

In September 2016, Amazon, DeepMind, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Google established a new ethical body called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society. The Royal Society, the British Academy and the Alan Turing Institute, the national institute for data science, are working on regulatory frameworks for managing personal data, and in May 2018, Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation will come into effect, strengthening the rights of individuals and their personal information.

All these initiatives show a growing interest in how online platforms can be held more responsible for the content they provide, not unlike newspapers. Journalists and PRs are all trained to question the source of something they read.

Perhaps us readers should take a long, hard, look at ourselves and stop simply accepting things at face-value. We need to shape and guide the future of the digital, and stop making it up as we go along, and establish some sort of blueprint for a better kind of infosphere.

Jamie Kightley, Head of Pitch&Place at IBA International

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