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How Media & Public Relations Researchers can Confront Fake News

Posted On December 12, 2016

Media chatter about fake news is nearly inescapable. The topic has dominated international news cycles following the American presidential election and continues to pop up in unexpected ways (see the Pizzagate incident). This recent impact of fake news has called the role and influence of mainstream media outlets further into question and is the latest headache for the gatekeepers of media and public relations.

While fake news isn’t anything, well, new, the growing social media amplification of active misinformation presents extra obstacles for media and PR practitioners. Online content reinforcing falsehoods subverts the media’s aim of mass information and public relations’ aim of mass persuasion.

Jonathan Albright, assistant professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, has emerged as an expert on this topic. His research has shown fake news sites are relying on methods of search engine optimization to strengthen their influence by linking to one another and mainstream news sources. Albright has also mapped a “vast satellite system that is encroaching on the mainstream news system.”

When compounded with trust in the media at an all-time low, media professionals and PR practitioners have their work cut out for them, but also have an opportunity to prove their value. Charlie Beckett, a journalist and LSE media professor, has suggested three solutions for media practitioners.

  1. News journalism must be explicit about whether the statements they report are evidence-based. “The excellent fact-checking that we are seeing has to be incorporated into the first paragraph and headlines, not just left for a side column or footnote.”
  2. Industry leaders need to leverage “algorithms, data-mining and network analysis like this to identify not just the sources of fake news such as those famous Macedonian teenagers, but also the way that platforms and other networks allow them to spread.”
  3. MSM needs to improve the level of transparency about its own work. It “should start to embrace what Frederic Filou calls the ‘signals of quality.’ The hope is that building a quality-scoring apparatus for news content can give a kind of embedded kitemark of editorial value.”

But all these solutions won’t cut false information from the media landscape – the internet is too vast and people tend to gravitate to content that confirms their views. The fragmentation of society along ideological lines poses one such challenge PR practitioners trying to reach a wide audience.

Robert Wynne of Wynne Communications said this fragmentation means the ‘end of mass persuasion’ for PR professionals and entrepreneurs using media to promote their products and services. “Because of the self-segregation by groups, each with its own beliefs and facts, we’ve entered a new era … the age of Micro-Persuasion or Tribal Persuasion.”

Communicators should then tailor their messages to different groups if not doing so already. Though more on the advertising side, the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica, a data mining company, to build psychological profiles representing some 230 million adult Americans based on Facebook data. Individually tailored digital ads were then tested and matched to these personality profiles.

No data point is informative on its own but access to tools to process a vast amount of data is one part of generating insights, such as knowing one’s audience. The other two parts require subject matter expertise, and critical thinking with applied statistics. These three aspects for insights will cut through the new obstacles fakes news presents.

About the Author

Kyle Wackrow manages client accounts and social media for PRIME Research. He tweets as @kyle_wackrow and can also be reached at wackrow@prime-research.com.

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