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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments