Revolutionary Measures

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.

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Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

1.Governments
Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at http://www.netc.navy.mil/netc/Commands/NETCcenters.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56331324

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January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mining the future

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the...

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As someone with a history degree I’m a firm believer that the past gives us real clues as to how future events will pan out. Just take a look at the current war in Afghanistan and how learning from the failed Russian (and even Victorian British) invasions demonstrate what tactics are likely to work.

Essentially what it comes down to is access to as much data as possible, and being able to organise this into meaningful information, draw conclusions and act on them. And where’s the biggest source of open data in the world? The internet. So I wasn’t surprised to see a recent piece in Wired on a Swedish start-up called Recorded Future that mines the web for information in order to predict events.

Recorded Future works by collecting and analysing a combination of mainstream news, official announcements and social media in order to draw conclusions. It only analyses 25,000 sources via RSS feeds but Recorded Future’s key USP is a powerful algorithm that takes this unstructured data and analyses it, looking for patterns and relationships. Essentially it does what a skilled analyst would do, if they had access to a huge amount of data and processing power.

While a relatively young company, Recorded Future has powerful backing – the CIA’s investment arm In-Q-Tel (IQT) has put money in, and there’s a lot of interest from financial speculators and hedge funds, looking to predict future stock market moves.

And for me that’s the disappointing thing – while it is going where the money is, predicting the future should be about much more than spies and share prices. Imagine using the software to map potential humanitarian disasters before they happen so that action can be taken early. Or looking across disciplines to bring together disparate health information in order to predict treatments for common diseases. So while I wish Recorded Future, and competitors such as Wolfram Alpha, Quid and Blekko, well, it would be nice to see them used for the common good as well as making a quick buck.

 

 

 

 

 

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November 7, 2011 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , | Leave a comment