how to spot fake news, disinformation, misinformation

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Teenagers engrossed on Instagram aren’t the only ones who need to beware of fake news and other forms of misinformation online. Sharing misinformation on social media or other online channels can damage reputations of individuals and brands.

Practically anyone from the CEO, communications department to summer interns might reshare a fake news post on Twitter, Facebook or other network. Misinformation, also known as disinformation, junk news or fake news, is often purposely designed to mimic real news and to encourage online sharing. Fear over Covid-19 and the approaching presidential election has increased proliferation of online misinformation.

Even if promptly deleted, a post could remain on social media forever as a screenshot, a share, or a retweet.

10 Questions to Ask to Spot Fake News

In response to disinformation and the risk it poses, the Institute for Public Relations has released a guide on how PR can help stop the spread of disinformation. The IPR defines disinformation ans the deliberate spread of misleading or biased information while misinformation may be spread without the sender having harmful intentions. It offers a 10-point check list for spotting disinformation:

  1. Who is the author or source? Is it a well-known media outlet? How biased is the source? Beware of anonymous sources.
  2. How current is the source? Sometimes old disinformation gets recirculated.
  3. Who shared this source? If the person who shared the post is a family member or friend, check the original source’s accuracy before you share it.
  4. Does the headline match the content? Click-bait headlines don’t accurately reflect the content of the article.
  5. Are the topics trying to create division or distrust? Disinformation often attempts to increase polarization among groups.
  6. How did the post make you feel? Disinformation often tries to trigger emotional responses.
  7. What evidence supports the claim? Claims should be verified by external sources.
  8. Does it sound like a joke? Some websites may not be transparent about being for entertainment purposes only.
  9. Have you verified the information? If it is not a reputable source, go to a search engine and verify the content through an additional trusted source.
  10. Do your really know enough to share the post? If you’re not sure it will help inform people it may be wise not to share.

The overriding question to ask is: Does this make sense? Is this information reasonable? If not, question it and verify it.

Take Time to Pause

“Now more than ever, the ability to curtail your quick-to-post instinct, and that of others who are leaders or representatives of your business, needs to be enforced,” warns Hinda Mitchell, founder of Inspire PR Group. “Too often, these posts directly conflict with the values or stated public positions of the organization represented by the poster — and that swiftly spells trouble.”

It’s essential for business professionals to beware posting or resharing content that could be perceived as insensitive, controversial or somehow conflicting with their brand’s values.

Before you post, Mitchell urges pausing and asking:

  • Would I say this in front of my customers?
  • Will my employees disagree or be offended?
  • Does the content and tone align with the values of our company?
  • Is it the right thing to say and do?

How to Identify & Refute Misinformation about Your Organization

Communications professionals can also follow these recommendations to identify and refute fake news and other forms of misinformation on social media and other sources.

Employ media monitoring. Continually monitor for mentions of your organization, products, top executives, and other keywords. Adjust your media monitoring tool to focus on websites known to produce false information.

Add fake news to your PR crisis preparedness plans. Meet with your team to discuss and prepare tactics. Brainstorm different scenarios, assign responsibilities for responding, and establish a workflow.

Respond swiftly to rebut misinformation. Real-time alerts from a media monitoring tool will quickly inform you when your company, products or other keywords are mentioned online. PR teams can expose a fraudulent report on their owned media and social media accounts. They can comment directly to the social media account that shared the misinformation. They can inform media outlets about the fake report if needed, and seek a takedown of the original story if possible.

Consider human analysts. Automated monitoring and measurement software is data oriented and may not be able to detect a fake news story. That may require human analysts who are knowledgeable about the organization and its products. The content analysis to identify fake news stories could be outsourced to the media monitoring service or done by the organization’s own staff.

Limit your description of misinformation if you have to repeat it. If you repeat it, you may inadvertently strengthen it, especially if the false argument offers a simpler explanation than the truth or when science cannot yet offer definite answers.

Provide an alternate explanation to misinformation. That’s more effective than just denying the false claims, some researchers argue. Denying misleading claims can reduce misperceptions, but that tactic can fall short because people may still remember the debunked information if they lack alternative exPplanations. By providing a different explanation, corporate communications can persuade people to revise their beliefs and reject falsehoods.

Bottom Line: Even intelligent, well-educated business professionals, including those in communications, can mistakenly spread fake news and other forms of misinformation if they act too hastily. They can spot dubious news reports by asking themselves key questions and they can spring into action when misinformation may damage the reputation of the organization and its brands.

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