On Sunday, December 4, a man carrying an assault rifle walked into a family-friendly pizza shop in Washington D.C. and fired. He was there to “self-investigate” a disgraceful conspiracy theory that accused Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta, of running a child sex slave operation out of the pizzeria. Instigated by a false news article, the story had spread via social media several weeks before. The restaurant’s owner, its employees, and even their children had already been subjected to death threats and online harassment in recent weeks.
A media and culture crisis
This terrifying incident is only the latest crisis fueled by fake news sites and online rumor mills. The untrue, vile abuse story and the social media users who perpetuated it are a tiny piece of a much larger problem plaguing our media and our culture. With the proliferation of fake news sites during the 2016 presidential election, politicians and pundits are despairing at the possibility of a “post-factual world,” – and wondering what role legitimate media outlets can play in combating it.
How PR can combat fake news?
The implications for PR are vast. In addition to the stupefied media, this issue has created a whole new kind of brand disaster – one beyond the experience of even seasoned crisis managers. How can we protect a neighborhood pizza shop whose online reviews include such slander as “They rape children” and “Shady cover up going on here. INVESTIGATE. INVESTIGATE. INVESTIGATE. shut em down ppl!”?
So how can PR combat fake news? Here are a few takeaways that businesses and their PR teams should keep in mind.
- Trust in the media is at a record low, and it is getting lower. Ensure that you and your clients are represented honestly and transparently in traditional outlets. Be prepared to argue your case in other ways, like social media and community advocates.
- Be vigilant in monitoring your social media and online presence. When a false story is written, time is of the essence. Contact legitimate media outlets, and ensure that customers know that the story is false. In addition, alert news aggregators and curators like Google and Facebook, who are under increasing pressure to stop false news.
- Take extra care to work only with legitimate news sources. Efforts to benefit from false news sites will certainly come around to bite you in the rear end.
- Avoid picking fights with trolls and online commenters.
- Don’t participate in the sharing or spreading of false news, in business or your personal life. It reflects poorly on you and your brand and perpetuates a major social ill.
This contagion will continue to assault our culture, our politics, and our public safety. Do your part in stopping the spread of these lies, and take precautionary measures to protect your interests. You never know who will be the next victim.
A version of this article was published on Spin Sucks.