Since the US election, we’ve heard more and more about the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. This new and unpredictable phenomenon is more than just a convenient method for President Trump to sidestep awkward questions during press conferences; it can be used to manipulate public opinion. Our fast paced, reactionary modern media can leave businesses and individuals open to undeserved scandal. It is a testament to the new digital age we live in.
The most obvious form of fake news is the completely fictionalised articles made to attract internet traffic and thus generate advertising revenue. Fake news is also increasingly harnessed with political motives. The Pope, for example, never actually endorsed Donald Trump (thank God!) and, more recently, Kremlin-backed websites have been spreading articles intended to affect the upcoming French elections. Not only do people read these excerpts and believe them, but stories circulate on social media at a colossal rate and rumours can easily snowball.
Besides the clear fiction, some fake news stories come under the banner of satire, and others are branded simply as ‘alternative facts’. We came across a few of those in Britain leading up to the referendum last June. (Where’s that £350 million for the NHS, Nigel?)
Fake news can also be born out of real events, for which media sensationalism plays its part; headlines deliberately aimed at attracting a reader’s attention often leave out the all-important details of a story. All of this contributes to the blurring of the truth.
Whatever the method, it only takes one damning article to circulate to cause damage to a brand.
Take the recent upload by Adam Saleh, he filmed himself being kicked off a Delta Airlines flight for speaking Arabic which was liked on Facebook more than 800,000 times and shared over 1.1 million times. It has since transpired that this is not an accurate description of events. Numerous passengers have come forward and it turns out that Adam and his friends were asked several times by airline staff to stop shouting and to settle down before being asked to get off the plane. More than 20 passengers had complained.
Although not definitively ‘fake’ news, this is a classic example of the manipulative powers of social media. Adam has every right to upload the video and protest the airline’s conduct, but without sufficient context the actions of the airline can be easily misconstrued by a vast audience and, no doubt, Delta Airlines’ reputation has been damaged as a result. Most major media outlets were quick to report the event in favour of Mr Saleh.
Ultimately this only adds importance and value to the integrity of communications agencies. As journalists frantically struggle to keep up with the pace of the modern news cycle, the communications agency stakes its clients’ and its own reputation on giving reliable information. Despite accusations of spin, we can’t afford not to be trustworthy.
With tongues in cheek, we could even try to harness this phenomenon. An ingenious marketing stunt by Range Rover saw their brand new model spray painted red with the words “CHEATER” and “I HOPE SHE WAS WORTH IT” outside Harrods one busy day in May. Of course, this attracted media attention in various forms, boosting the launch’s profile – even when denouncing it as a publicity stunt.
One thing is for certain – both communications agencies and the media will have to adapt to this ‘post-truth’ era.