What did the brutal and divisive 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, the Russian hacking of the Democratic Party and the erosion of public trust in the media have in common? In all, fake news was a factor.
Fake news has emerged as a hot topic in the national dialogue in the post-2016 U.S. Presidential race. And it continues to have an undeniable impact on American politics, business and society, and is shaping public opinion at a time when some national thought leaders openly support the validity of “alternative facts”.
The American public has taken notice of fake news and are not happy about it. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think fake news is creating confusion about the country’s “basic facts of current issues and events”, according to a Pew Research national opinion poll conducted in December 2016. And there are worrying signs that the deliberate use of fake news to influence public opinion is not only here to stay but growing.
An annoyance or a growing threat?
A skeptic might say, what’s the big deal? The use of phony facts to gain political or business advantage is as old as recorded time. But today’s digital technology has changed all that. The algorithms used by social media platforms can circulate a post to a few hundred people that can morph into tens of thousands of people and larger in a short time as it is shared with their online networks. The purveyors of fake news have doubled down on using technology for producing and distributing phony information and have become a cottage industry. What motivates those that enter the business of phony news? Politics? Perhaps, but profit appear to be the primary motivation. “The money, not the politics, was the point,” said one budding entrepreneur interviewed by the Washington Post. Thousands of dollars can be generated from fake ads on websites using the self-service ad technology available on Google, Facebook and other online platforms.
Can you personally or your business be affected by fake news. Yes, definitely. The humorous satire published by The Onion that is sometimes mistaken for real news is harmless. But more of the fake news in circulation has a malevolent purpose. It can damage your reputation, your business and result in threats to your safety and that of your family.
Take, for example, the near tragedy at a popular Washington, DC pizzeria. An armed man traveled from North Carolina to DC to investigate a “news story” he found on social media claiming that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were in league with a popular Washington, DC pizzeria in a child-trafficking ring. He entered the pizzeria carrying a gun and demanded answers from terrified staff and patrons. He fired shots into the walls before surrendering to the police. Fortunately, no one was harmed.
But the impact of the fake pizzeria news story was not over with the arrest of the gunman. The owner of the pizzeria and his employees received death threats. Online posts repeating the phony news story didn’t stop and urged people to boycott the pizzeria. Finally, as a safety precaution, the owner closed the pizzeria temporarily out of fear of possible harm to himself and his staff.
In 2016, stirring up public concern and irrational panic was another blowback from fake news. This was the case with Kaci Hickok, a Doctors Without Borders nurse, who voluntarily served in West Africa to treat patients stricken by Ebola. She returned to the United States after having tested negative for the disease and not displaying any symptoms. In the meantime, fake news stories were circulating about Ebola outbreaks in the U.S. and fanning public fears. Upon arrival in the U.S., Hickok was immediately placed in quarantine for 80-hours at the order of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Media reports on her quarantine and comments by Governor Christie that she was carrying a yet to be diagnosed disease were broadly shared online and contributed to a growing state of public panic.
Her problems didn’t end with her release from quarantine. She soon learned that she had been evicted from the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, a nursing student, in Maine. He then became a victim of the unintended consequences from growing media interest in Hickok. He was told by his nursing school to stop attending classes if he continued to share an apartment with Hickok. In the meantime, the Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, announced that he planned to put Hickok back in quarantine. The quarantine order was challenged in court. Left in limbo, Hickok and her boyfriend took a publicized bike ride to protest against the quarantine order. Not surprisingly, the police reported death threats were made against Hickok. Eventually, Hickok and her boyfriend left Maine.
Be vigilant, have a plan and be proactive
What can you do to protect yourself, your family and your business if you are the target of fake news or suffer collateral damage? Sadly, there’s no guaranteed way to stop fake news from appearing online. That’s a challenge for Facebook and other social media platforms to solve. But here’s what you can do:
Find other credible sources for “too good to be true” news stories before sharing them on social media platforms. We contribute to the dissemination of fake news by not verifying its veracity. Check multiple sources of credible traditional and new media to confirm its accuracy. Go to fact checking sites like Snopes. Fake news is packaged to appear like it is from a credible source, making it hard to identify. The best way to avoid aiding and abetting the purveyors of fake news is to use your judgement before hitting the send button. Be alert to sensational breaking news story about an alleged scandal or criminal activity involving well-known people and companies. When you find one, red flags should be flying on your internal credibility radar.
If you are a business owner, treat your customers well. Why should that matter? Well, it did for the Washington, DC pizzeria that came under attack by a deluded gunman and waves of fake news on its alleged involvement in a child trafficking ring. Social media lit up with support from local customers and sympathizers after the attack. Loyal customers came in droves to buy pizzas as a gesture of support. Local and national news media covered this story and editorialized about the dangers of fake news and the damage it can do to individuals and businesses. That kind of a response comes from customer goodwill built up over time.
Proactively monitor the Internet and have a response plan. Your best defense against fake news is to be vigilant. Fake news is different from cyber hacking. Cyber intrusions are quietly executed while fake news is prominently displayed on the Internet. Both cyber hacks and fake news pose external threats, but are handled somewhat differently. Cyber security specialists will monitor a company’s IT and quietly fend off cyberattacks but fake news attacks require a more visible response. Major companies employ large numbers of staffers and outside consulting companies whose primary job is to monitor the Internet for ads, news stories and social media postings for references to the company and its products or services. They must also deal with the growing Internet presence of fake news along with fake listings, websites, ads, and reviews of businesses, that profit from scamming their customers out of money and that defame their company’s reputation. SMEs may not have those kind of resources, but that should not be deterrent to having a smaller but effective monitoring capability.
What should you do when a so-called news story appears with information that could affect a company’s stock price or the quality of its product or services? The company needs to take immediate steps to communicate accurate information via new and traditional media and on social media platforms to interrupt the momentum of the phony information on the Internet and to reduce concerns of investors, customers and other stakeholders. Your stakeholders are vulnerable to being duped by fake news because it looks like it is legitimate. You need to use your internal knowledge of the company to identify real from fake news and do everything possible to shield stakeholders and the company from possible negative consequences.
The incredible benefits of the Digital Age we enjoy comes with a perverse underbelly. Fake news has now joined cyber hacking as a threat to you, your family, your business as well as our political system. Vigilance and planning are important to having a coordinated response to fake news that can reduce its negative consequences. But a question yet to be answered is whether the public will reject the use of fake news or accept it as part of the new normal in our changing political and social environment? Let’s hope for the former. The latter would signal an erosion of America’s moral compass that could undermine the fundamental values that keeps our economy, law and politics and our lives real.
Photo credit: David Watmough | Dreamstime.com – <a href=”https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-truth-lies-text-inscribed-uppercase-letters-small-white-cubes-black-red-colors-respectively-hand-magnifier-image51147350#res16200639″>Truth and lies</a>