One of the most significant news stories to emerge after the culmination of the election cycle was, interestingly enough, about the news itself. Specifically, it has become very apparent that the proliferation of “fake news” reached a peak during the election campaign—and among the things that we don’t know are how much of an effect it had, and whether we’ve reached a zenith in this trash heap or if there’s more to come. What is not in question are the profound implications fake news poses for the work of public relations practitioners.
Fake news is a real problem
On some level, what is described as fake news has been around for a long time—I’d be willing to argue that mythology and storytelling could even be considered the first fake news, by taking elements of real people and events and creating plausible story arcs around them. From the Bat Boy headlines on supermarket tabloids to the Loch Ness monster, stories that appeal to the strange, or weird, or conspiratorial side of our nature stick with us.
There are two things that appear to have changed: one, the nature of the content itself; and two, people’s skepticism of the stories being told. Taken together, these two elements present a real issue. It’s easy to dismiss reports of Bigfoot sightings because they are fantastical. It’s harder to dismiss reports of people being bused in to protest election results, especially when the tweet alleging such activity comes with a picture of the alleged buses included. The New York Times published a comprehensive piece detailing exactly how this latter story evolved from one man’s unfounded assumption with an accompanying photo to become a national story. BuzzFeed detailed how a bunch of people in Macedonia made money off of creating totally fake pro-Trump news that drove traffic to their websites, generating ad revenue. Each of these stories show how readily people will share information that confirms their underlying biases, whether it is true or not.
Echo chambers amplify
What allows the spread of fake stories are the echo chambers that have become a defining feature of social media, and even more specifically, Facebook. Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab described how these echo chambers, the financial problems facing traditional media, and economic forces that are shifting jobs to the cities and coasts all combined to create an environment that permits fake stories to proliferate virtually unchecked. While these forces all had something to do with the rise of fake news, Benton singles out Facebook saying: “There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the list of actors has to start with Facebook. And for all its wonders — reaching nearly 2 billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else on earth — it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information.”
Facebook finds itself at an interesting crossroads. There’s no denying the fact that the platform was used to disseminate a crushing avalanche of garbage stories, and that its algorithms tend to place content that we want to see (aka, agree with) in our news feeds—but its reluctance to aggressively manage the problem is perhaps understandable too. Earlier in the year, Facebook was accused of quashing news with a conservative bent from its trending stories, and the furor that ensued from that incident seems to have made the social platform wary of addressing the problem.
What’s next – and what it means for PR
Facebook and Google have each announced steps they will be taking to ensure sites that generate fake news for the purposes of generating clicks and advertising dollars are identified and blocked. That’s a good first step. Taking away financial incentives will weed out the individuals who are generating fake news simply to make a profit off of website clicks.
Unfortunately, this won’t be enough to stop the deluge of fake stories, because there is now an established benchmark for performance, and it’s alarming. Fake election news significantly outperformed real news stories according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News. The top 20 fake stories received more than 8.7 million interactions (Facebook shares, reactions, comments) versus the 20 best-performing pieces from traditional news websites, which received 7.3 million interactions.
The problems this presents for the field of public relations are twofold. First, the rise of fake stories will further erode the trust people place in any news stories. PR depends heavily on the veracity of mainstream media; without it earned media placements have no value. The second point is that people apparently struggle to determine what real news is and what isn’t, according to researchers with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The Stanford study was conducted on students from middle school to high school age, but it reflects some of what I saw within my own (adult) circles: people share stories without analyzing where the piece is from, if it has any verification, or any backup. Without that ability to accurately discern what is real, news loses its meaning—and again, this results in earned media having no value.
The bottom line for PR practitioners is a potentially troubling one: if the rise of fake news continues, it will undermine a core part of the PESO system. When the public distrusts the media, the third-party validation of receiving earned media coverage evaporates. That validation beyond paid, shared, and owned media is critical, which is why media relations work has always been such an important component of public relations practice.