The fake news problem (and what to do about it)

Key takeaways

  • The cry of ‘fake news’ has become ubiquitous, used by political factions to discredit rivals and disreputable organisations to effect social discourse.
  • Various digital innovations are being trialled by publication platforms to improve access to quality journalism.
  • Business must be careful to understand the context of their messaging and build customer trust to provide context.

Fake news.

Normally we’d start an article like this with a quip about the topic being “in the headlines,” but when it comes to fake news in the current day, that’s redundant.

It’s a favoured subject of newspapers, social media, politicians, governments and media outlets, and it seems to have come out of nowhere.

A year or two ago, the term would be unfamiliar to most of us, but as a concept, ‘fake’ news has been around since humans began writing things down (and undoubtedly, even before that). Its ilk has been carved on temple walls, printed on coins and permeated the radio airwaves.

Why then has this time around changed the entire conversation?

What is fake news?

It seems like a simple question, but actually, the first thing to know about fake news is that there’s no one kind. Broadly speaking, there are three main types of fake news, and all need to be tackled in different ways, by society and business alike.

The first type, what we’ll call ‘deliberate fake news’, is arguably the most ‘fake’. This is the spreading of intentionally incorrect information (by bots or otherwise) with the goal of changing a societal outcome. This is the kind that has been disseminated on social media to change election outcomes.1 It isn’t new, but has greater reach in a hyper-connected world.

The second type is not so much ‘fake’ as it is misleading or serving an agenda. This is not new in any way, shape or form. Propaganda and biased news is the result of unscrupulous reporting, or politically-aligned publishers.

Third, we have unintentionally fake news. False news spreads faster than the truth, but it isn’t necessarily due to nefarious intentions. A study by MIT found that tweets containing misinformation go viral more than factually correct tweets, in some cases spreading six times faster and reaching tens to hundreds of thousands more.It isn’t that people want to spread rumours, more that our human nature can make us more susceptible to believing juicier content.

Is fake news a business problem?

It might be tempting to ignore fake news as a political problem in which the impacts are restricted to echelons higher than the world of business.

And in some ways, fake news has had a positive influence. A renewed interest in the transparency of communication channels is not a bad thing. Do we live in a social media echo chamber where our confirmation bias is always confirmed? The jury is out on the extent,3 but that society is asking the question is a step in the right direction.

Moreover, the recent proliferation in fake news has led to an increased interest in quality journalism and publishing integrity. As Michael Stutchbury of The Australian Financial Review, points out, “Fake news can make old media great again. Amid the growing crisis of trust, it can at least help provide a viable business model for credible, newsroom-based journalism that some fear is dying.”4 Trust in quality journalism is going up – as are the subscriptions from people shelling out to guarantee access to unbiased information.

But bots and actors intent on interfering on a world stage won’t limit their manipulation to politics – business will also be seen as fair game. Shareholder activism can generate (or utilise) media scrutiny, and therefore, be at the whim of intentional news manipulation. So too can people simply wanting to create havoc.

Pepsi, as just one high profile example, has been at the centre of a number of fake news attacks – from stories and websites, to false media releases claiming product contamination.5And while the spread of fake information (as opposed to the creation of it) might not be intentional, it can have very real impact on stock prices and executive reputation.

Digital avenues to the truth

As the fear of false information being spread online, particularly via online communities, has grown, so has the range of solutions implemented.

Twitter now requires users to confirm their identity via email or phone number to fight the creation of false ‘spam’ accounts.6 Facebook is experimenting with shrinking the URLs of hoax sites7 and expanding its external fact-checking program that lowers the visibility of inaccurate stories in people’s News Feeds.8 Messaging service WhatsApp is limiting the amount of groups that messages can be forwarded to in an attempt to curb false news proliferation leading to political disturbances.9

Other options being trialled include the platform Knowhere, which uses machine learning to deliver unbiased news. On the site, users can view news stories as they would be written from their respective political biases for context, as well as an impartial ‘just the facts’ version.

It’s also worth noting that Wikipedia has had a very different experience with fake news. Founder Jimmy Wales claimed that, “Wikipedia has had almost no problems with this at all, […] simply because [it is the community’s] hobby to debate about the quality of sources.”10 Perhaps why YouTube has begun adding ‘fact checked’ notes below videos on its platform where the veracity of content is in question.11

In the UK, The Independent Press Standards Organisation, launched the “IPSO mark” and associated awareness campaign. Publications signed up with the press regulator can use the logo – on physical and online versions – to alert readers that they abide by the standards of the Editors’ Code of Practice.12

Being alert to the new ‘fake’ normal

It’s difficult to foresee that these efforts will prove effective at combating fake news. Even so, attention should be paid to the various digital solutions being proposed and implemented, as they will impact the effectiveness of messages being put out by business.

With no sure-fire way to stop fake news, business must instead focus on resilience in a landscape where it is the norm. Not only must companies monitor what is happening in the fake news landscape, be that websites, politics or on social media, but they must be proactive in countering it to manage risk and reputation.

In part this will mean focusing on being a trustworthy organisation, so that consumers have context with which to judge any content that comes their way. But it also means being sensitive to the way in which messages are being received in the market and crafting them appropriately.

Business, like politics, will need to get comfortable with an uncertain and shifting ‘news’ landscape and remember that it could all change in tomorrow’s edition.


Dr Amy Gibbs

Amy is the Editor in Chief for Digital Pulse, PwC Australia