Here's a staggering statistic: 63% of Americans view disinformation—or deliberately misleading or biased information—as a major problem in society, on par with gun violence (63%) and terrorism (66%), according to the 2019 Institute for Public Relations Disinformation in Society Report.

Clearly, fake news on social media is more than a launching pad for talk show host monologues. Disinformation spread on these platforms may be reshaping digital tribal behaviors — and raising questions about public relations’ role in containing it.

Paul Quigley, CEO of NewsWhip, notes that social disinformation is nourished by confirmation bias, or the inclination to interpret new information as supporting pre-existing beliefs. The echo chamber effect, which encourages opinions to strengthen if messages get repeated in a closed system, is another factor.

“When people believe strongly in something, they don’t really want to see contradictory evidence,” Quigley explains. “Researchers at NYU have shown that this applies most strongly to political opinions - liberals and conservatives both hate changing their minds when faced with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This means disinformation thrives when people want to believe.”

Perhaps even more significant, in the view of Claire Wardle, director of First Draft News, is consumers’ inherently limited ability to tell true from false in a news-saturated environment. “The biggest shift is everybody is completely overwhelmed by information,” she says. “We’re taking on so much more information than we ever used to. In that environment, we’re less critical.”

Whatever its source, this problem should concern everyone, according to Angela Mears, creative director for Weber Shandwick in Chicago. “Disinformation deepens divisions and reinforces humanity’s worst and darkest tribal tendencies,” she says. “Of course it does. There are so many scary corners of the internet now — incels, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers and extremists of all walks of life thriving in echo chambers of their own making.”

Earlier this year, the IPR report, which surveyed 2,200 adults around disinformation, also found that 64% of respondents said Facebook was “somewhat” responsible for spreading disinformation; more than half also said Twitter (55%).

The obvious candidates for dealing with the issue — the social media platforms — have not been idle, Quigley observes.  “Facebook has invested heavily in fighting intentionally misleading information — i.e. the kind of stories that are false and shared maliciously or with intent to mislead,” he says. It's also worth noting, Facebook continues to face criticism around its handling of disinformation. 

But the challenge is not straightforward. “There’s a big grey zone of things that are ‘kinda true,’” Quigley says. “For example, the French President tweeted that the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, which is false, but Twitter is not going to start policing tweets and taking down scientifically inaccurate statements. It might be very empty very fast if they did.”

That's not to say Twitter isn't doing anything about disinformation on its site. With all of the social media platforms under pressure to take action, some steps are being taken.

Yet, social media users already bristle at social media controls, well-intentioned or not. Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Foundation, points to an October 2019 Pew Research Center survey that found 62% of respondents said social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see on the sites. “Given how many people get their information from the platforms and their concern about that information being credible, this is a substantial issue,” Schiller says.

If better algorithms for tailoring news feeds aren’t the solution, Schiller suggests another possibility. “What is largely issuing from the equation is an incredibly important cohort of players – companies,” Schiller says. “Corporations and brands have a huge stake. Organizations, whether commercial enterprises or not-for-profit, are impacted by misinformation directly. There’s certainly lots of evidence of misinformation being directed as companies and CEOs.”

Disinformation vs. Misinformation 

This would be a good moment to reflect on the difference between disinformation and misinformation. Generally speaking, disinformation is by design — it's the targeted, intentional spreading of false news, or stuff that looks like news. Meanwhile, misinformation is a wider category - it can include any false or misleading statements, including those made in good faith, or without much regard to their truth or falsity.  

"[Disinformation] is the area that Russia seems to have excelled at in the run-up to the 2016 election," Quigley explains. "Misinformation is far more common, and harder for the platforms like Facebook to deal with than co-ordinated disinformation: My dumb, misinformed opinion might be held in good faith, and I'll object loudly if I'm censored for holding it." 

Quigley sees PR’s role as extending beyond concern about both misinformation and disinformation's impact on brands. “I think the PR industry needs to be aware of the potential that narratives and stories that win attention might be false, and be careful about reinforcing those,” he says. “As brands start taking more stands on social and political issues, while building the influence of their owned properties, they may need to hold themselves to a high standard of truth.”

Tools for Fighting Disinformation

With the best will in the world, combating fake news has so far proven a tough job. Technological solutions such as algorithms that filter misleading posts or identify and block automated trolling accounts, aren’t by themselves up to the task, Quigley maintains.

“But tools can help with identifying which stories are worth paying attention to as fake or not,” he continues. “For example, we isolate the biggest and fastest spreading stories from others, and predict accurately how big they’ll become. That means a PR pro can pay attention to the more influential content, and debunk or respond if it proves to be fake.”

Darika Ahrens, digital director at MHP London, points to news industry fact checking initiatives, such as CrossCheck from First Draft, which may be able to show corporate communications professionals the way.

“In the same way they are applying standards to published news I'd be interested to see the PR industry adopt some sort of verifiable standards which can be applied to communications materials to show they have been independently reviewed,” Ahrens says. “It would especially be useful for clients who are, unfairly, struggling to gain consumer trust or combat misinformation about themselves, their products or services.”

The Fake News Future

Even with disinformation nearly universally recognized as a problem, and a growing number of entities stepping up to take it on, a successful resolution doesn’t appear imminent, or perhaps even possible.

Confirmation bias, for instance, is probably an indelible human trait. And Wardle says any efforts to discourage tribalism and echo chamber effects on social media platforms also face fundamental barriers.

“Tribalism is how we operate in society,” Wardle says. “We get our identity by differentiating ourselves from others and connecting with others. The same thing happens online. It’s not a new thing. We perform online the same way we perform off line. We choose to be with people we like. We have fights with people we like.”

Quigley agrees that fake news is likely with us to stay. “Misinformation is a characteristic of our new information environment that is not going away,” he says. “PR professionals won’t encounter out-and-out howlers of fake news, but they will find false and misleading narratives gaining traction when these appeal to the beliefs of particular groups. This promises to remain a difficult reality to navigate.”

 The Holmes Report partnered with NewsWhip on a multi-part series that explores the intersection of PR, predictive analytics and fake news. You can read more from the series here