Fake news is a catch-all phrase used to describe news based on lies or half-truths that are designed to deceive.

Also known as alternative facts, fake news is one of the biggest issues facing the public relations profession today.

Its spread is on the increase following the European Referendum and US Election last year.

Fake news creates a serious ethical dilemma for anyone working in the media. In practical terms there is the issue of how to prevent the publication and broadcast of information that misleads the general public.

There is also the question of how to maintain trust in the media at a time of declining print revenues, when quality journalism is needed more than ever to hold power to account.

Digital media, by enabling fake news to be shared quickly and widely, exacerbates the problem and creates social media bubbles far removed from reality.

It does this by:

  • allowing those with the biggest budgets to amplify their messages and extend reach
  • giving those with big budgets the loudest voice among the general public without any regulation over whether that is factual or not

Analysis by BuzzFeed News  found that top fake US election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top US election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

An issue as old as time

While fake news appears to be a new trend, it’s actually as old as the industry itself.

As Stephen Waddington says in his draft framework to tackle fake news: “You can trace the history of fake news in the public relations business from Edward Bernays in the 1900s to Max Clifford in the 1980s. More recently from the Iraq War dodgy dossier in the early noughties, to campaigning during last year’s UK Referendum and US Election.”

Campaigning around both Brexit here and the US election has finally brought the issue to widespread attention.

The leave campaign’s big red bus promising £350m for the NHS might have won the vote, but soon turned out to be a falsehood.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been characterised by fake news from the very first press briefing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer directly challenged the media on the large number of people attending Trump’s inauguration, despite widespread proof to the contrary.

Trump himself eschews traditional media, often refusing questions at press briefings in favour of engaging with the general public directly through social media. This is propaganda, not public relations.

So where next?

The question of what can be done is a pressing one and a work in progress.

Following criticism that it was responsible for widely spreading fake news during the US election, Facebook is using readers and third party fact checkers to verify its content and try and address the problem.

Channel 4 has created this video to help people identify fake news when it appears.

Newspaper teams across countries are working together to research topics and share expertise.

The UK parliament has launched an investigation into the rise of fake news, with Matt Hancock, the minister of state for digital and culture policy asking UK newspaper representatives to join round-table discussions about the issue.

A role for one and all

We all have a personal responsibility for slowing the growth of fake news.

Those in public relations and the media can help by educating members of the public how to verify the accuracy of news and interrogating each other’s work.

In whatever they are writing and sharing, practicing public relations professionals need to:

  • validate information
  • substantiate all claims
  • clearly attribute sources

Accountability is very much part of the Code of Conduct for members of both the CIPR and PRCA.

To prevent further erosion of trust, the reputation of the public relations industry must be protected through ethical practice and a united movement against the perpetrators spreading lies and deceit.

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