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The threat of fake news

The phenomenon that is ‘fake news’ has swept across the news agenda, muscled its way into speeches and been referenced by Donald Trump more times than I can count over the last 12 months or so. The Independent now has a dedicated section on it’s website for the purpose of identifying fake news and there were so many fake news alerts after the atrocities in Barcelona this summer, Buzzfeed published a video with the sole purpose of debunking these ‘truths’.

It’s not a new phenomenon though, it’s something which has very much plagued the internet since its inception. But with social media continuing to grow as an integral platform not only to connect and communicate, but through which we (as consumers) live our lives, our exposure to fake news is only getting stronger.

The threat isn’t restricted to celebrities and politicians though; businesses face an equal (if not higher) risk. For example, over the summer, supermarket customers found themselves trying to download £100 Tesco and Waitrose vouchers as part of an ‘anniversary’ push from the supermarket giants – in actual fact these vouchers were fake and did not entitle the owner to anything.  

The customers who clicked through to the web page to ‘download’ the vouchers – and found themselves fantasizing about the indulgent weekly shop they were about to embark on – were faced with a confusing form and asked for all their personal details in return for nothing.

Waitrose were quick to remark that the vouchers were ‘in no way related to Waitrose – and we are reporting it to Action Fraud’, and luckily for the supermarket chains, the fact that they’d been a victim of a ‘fake news hit’ was covered more extensively than the actual vouchers,  but the threat of fake news on both B2C and B2B businesses could be catastrophic.

Speaking hypothetically, if it was ‘leaked’ or ‘reported’ that one of the UK’s major banks was about to crash, customer stress levels would go into free fall and at the very least, extensive reassurances would need to be made. Or if it was ‘reported’ that one of the country’s airlines had experienced an issue with its safety checks and procedures, consumer trust would be brought into question.

As communication experts, part of our role is to mitigate the risks of fake news, and while planning for crises is part and parcel of our everyday work, building the threat of fake news into these plans is a relatively new consideration. So we treat it like any other crisis planning scenario and follow the mantra: prepare, prepare, prepare. By having a stringent plan in place to go through this process, we can proactively verify the rumours if necessarily in a quick (but not rushed), informative (but sympathetic) and reassuring (but authoritative) fashion. After all, our most powerful tool is the truth.

This article is part of our Autumn 2017 newsletter