Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Public trust, rumor-fighting, and fake news: What comms pros can do

In a world where the President of the United States keeps contradicting or changing his facts, and declaring others' facts as "fake news" when he disagrees with them, communications pros have their work cut out for them. Social media fans the flames of this particular communications dumpster fire: Opposing sides swing into action, spreading rumors. There are honest, or not-so-honest mistakes, and then there's the fake news industrial complex at work. Rumors get sticky and persistent and won't go away. They move faster than you do, as Winston Churchill noted long ago, when he said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

But those are just the symptoms. Most important is the underlying condition: Those public audiences with whom you are trying to build trust and credibility are questioning everyone and everything, or just checking out.

The Pew Research Center has new data out on how people approach facts and info, in a treasure trove of a report--it is extensive, takes the time to delineate different types of public audiences, and then breaks down how they approach, view, and handle information from a variety of sources and institutions. This is a must-read for the smart communications pro, something for your team to absorb and study, and perhaps share with your internal and external clients to educate them, as well.

Unfortunately, it's also a demonstration of Americans' distrust of information from a variety of sources. It's great news for libraries and health providers, which top the list--although with just about 40 percent each of the survey respondents, so not an overwhelming majority. Fully 30 percent of respondents said they don't trust any source "a lot." Social media? Right at the bottom, even though other surveys--including some from Pew--continue to show that we consult social media for news more than other sources. Everyone else: You've got some work to do to earn the public trust. This is not a non-issue for you and your communications strategy.

Social media sites are not unaware of the problem. Facebook, among others, has started initiatives to sort out fake vs. real news, collaborating with and the Associated Press. One part of the initiative is to add a "disputed" tag to spurious reports on Facebook. But nothing's perfect. A new study of the disputed tags suggest limited effectiveness, and even a backfire effect with two particular demographics. From Politico's coverage:
The study, reported for the first time by POLITICO, found that tagging false news stories as “disputed by third party fact-checkers” has only a small impact on whether readers perceive their headlines as true. Overall, the existence of “disputed” tags made participants just 3.7 percentage points more likely to correctly judge headlines as false, the study said. 
The researchers also found that, for some groups—particularly, Trump supporters and adults under 26—flagging bogus stories could actually end up increasing the likelihood that users will believe fake news.
NiemanLab's coverage notes another useful study from the same authors that looks at the cognitive psychological profiles of people with what they call high "bullshit receptivity" to fake news. You just can't educate yourself enough about your audiences and how they approach and handle news, and trust.

One way to learn is to watch what journalists do, living as they do in the land of fact-checking--then review your own comms shop's procedures for fact-checking (you do have some, don't you?) to be sure they are on point for today. A useful discussion on NPR's 1A called "Facts and Friction" recently brought together fact-checking experts from the Washington Post, The Atlantic,, and a media literacy association to discuss the finer points. You'll find out why the Post does not generally use the word "lie" when someone makes a false statement, among other gems. There's audio and a transcript, as well as links to related coverage, at the link, so pass it around the office.

Rumors are another variant. Call them homegrown fake news: With all the big news events happening recently, particularly the hurricanes and floods--two destabilizing events that cut off information flows and boost rumors--rumors are rife in the absence of other info, and word of mouth re-proves just how efficient it can be, with or without social media.

Pro communicators can find some good examples of efforts by official institutions to tamp down rumors and refute them. I've found two good examples. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has set up a "rumor control" portion of its website to refute hurricane-related rumors for all the storms in play right now. The Miami Airport's doing something similar, but on Twitter.

Dispelling myths and rumors, we already know, requires more than setting up a website these days. If you are following this model, you need to publicize, publicize, publicize. It's a great opportunity to pitch stories to relevant reporters about the myths and rumors you are hearing, and the facts. You can clearly amplify the resource on social media, in speeches, and in media interviews. And you may need to do this over a long period of time, just for the record. Remember, the more you blog and post about your rumor-fighting site, the higher it gets in the search engines. And if you couch the rumors as questions, so much the better: That's search-engine gold, as you know.

The New York Times also shared tactics for combating fake news that emerged from a meta-analysis of thousands of psychological studies, so frame your responses using these evidence-based approaches. As the headline notes, it ain't easy to do.

There are plenty of sites, and we've covered some, that have already established ongoing myth-busting or rumor busting in their particular areas--like inaccurate quotes attributed to great people in history. We may be entering a time when every institution looking to maintain a public trust will need such a permanent section on its website, and in its promotional rotation on social media. If you have good examples to share, I'm happy to round them up. Share on the social sites below or email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail.

(Pew Research Center chart from the report)

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