The fake news pandemic – and how to handle it

01 June 2020

Last month, Ofcom warned against the prevalence of false or misleading information about Coronavirus. According to the media regulator, many people are unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction when it comes to COVID-19, and the latest estimates are that fake news has reached a billion social media users.

Those inside the healthcare sector are feeling the impact of this fake news: a senior insider recently told Schillings “society is split in two… healthcare sector individuals are having to deal with this tsunami, and the general public are scrabbling for information to educate themselves. Fake news or inappropriate news can have the same effect.” They went on to explain, “I seem to have spent the past four months countering fake news…and opinions which were effectively changing my friend’s behaviours which in turn was putting everyone at risk”.

It’s not surprising then that tech giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been in talks with the government to see whether there is more we can do to halt the influx of false claims and disinformation currently circulating online. Yet with these companies still reluctant to share their data (e.g. how much fake news they are actually removing), there are no consistent standards, and it remains difficult to conduct meaningful research.

We do know that it’s easy for a story to gain momentum regardless of its accuracy, and for that momentum to give it misplaced credence. The question is, what can you do if you find a clear case of false reporting that will negatively impact your business or an individual?

The truth about fake news

The irony is that ‘fake news’ is a misnomer. Most people do not set out to create or distribute fake news. It’s more accurate to talk about inaccurate reporting – or reporting without sufficient context or nuance. If you’ll forgive me going a bit meta; fake news is fake news.

Inaccurate reporting has exploded in recent years for a combination of reasons – many of them explored in Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News back in 2009. Thorough journalism requires time to research and fact check – and time is a luxury few reporters now have. Twenty-four hour rolling news requires stories to be updated several times a day – when often there is nothing new to say. Reluctance to pay for online news has led to massive job cuts in media industries – resulting in too few journalists, chasing too many stories with not enough time for research.

The pressure to publish – fast – is immense, and this erases the time needed for journalists to find sufficient sources to substantiate their stories, or educate themselves on the nuances of a subject matter they may not have tackled before. Add into this online algorithms, news aggregation, citizen journalism, the power of influencers and the editorial bubbles we’re now able to self-select into – and it’s no wonder fairness and balance are the first casualties of this brutal system.

News in the time of Covid

These are not new issues – it’s a topic that’s been well covered over the last 10 years. But Covid-19 has catalysed this process.

Covid-19 creates the perfect case study in how fake news flourishes. In a time of crisis we’re desperate for information – and the pressure on news organisations (many of whom have had to furlough staff) is intense. The public’s response to news is swift – look how quickly the UK sold out of loo roll, not because of a supply chain issue, but due to news reports that others were stockpiling.

At the more serious end of the spectrum, journalists with no background in healthcare are having to cover stories, fast, about a hugely complicated sector. Alistair Clay, director at health and social care specialist comms agency Arc Seven Communications, has been on the receiving end of this challenge.

“During the COVID-19 crisis we’ve dealt with a large number of journalists who have never covered the social care sector before”, he told me.

“They sometimes have very little understanding of the detailed nature of the resident cohort in care homes, how care is provided – or what the true purpose is of a modern quality care home. This means they often rush in with a very sensationalist telling of the story, without understanding the nuances of the situation”.

The pressure on journalists leads to over-simplified news – which impacts public perception of what’s going on. An orthopaedic consultant explained this brilliantly to me recently when speaking about reports of the daily death count in the UK.

“Reporting a daily head count and focusing on tragic cases of the young outliers who have lost their lives during this awful pandemic, gives an unbalanced view on both the actuality and risk to the majority of the working population”, he explained - adding he felt a more helpful and balanced strategy would be “publishing the excess mortality against the daily normal mortality as the norm. This would be further aided by giving some stratification of the risk, by age perhaps and other demographic risk factors”.

And yet over-simplification provides a narrative purpose. At times of uncertainty we want heroes and villains. We want to cheer Captain Tom, and boo politicians. We create stories to make sense of things, and we want people to blame. It’s this, combined with time pressure, that leads to over-simplified stories and a press hungry for examples of winners and sinners – be that CEOs, the NHS, care homes or celebrities. Your reputation now hangs in the balance of where you sit on the win/sin spectrum.

Setting the record straight

With this in mind, now is the time to take a zero tolerance approach to fake news. Gone are the days of dismissing a barely read blog, or a Twitter profile with few followers, as not worth bothering with. From tiny acorns, mighty fake news oaks can grow.

If you find your reputation, or that of your company or family, is damaged by false, inaccurate or even overly-simplified news, you need to take action. Here are some steps you can take when you receive that “we’re going to publish this tomorrow” call.

Step one – understand the problem

To decide what action you’ll take, carry out a swift risk assessment. The more serious the allegations, the greater the risk to your reputation - so consider what the impact the story will have. Will it resonate with a particular audience or have implications for specific stakeholders? How credible are those making the allegations? What is their readership likely to be?

Bear in mind that sometimes it’s not the number of people who have read the allegation that does the damage, but the status of those who read it. And don’t forget that social media makes sharing stories easy, which can significantly lengthen the life of a story.

If there is public appetite for the allegations, and if they are in the public interest, it will increase the likelihood of them being taken seriously and living longer in the public consciousness. This is of particular importance in the current climate, where tensions exist between the need for speed in publication, and presenting information with sufficient context to be fully understood.

Step two – engage

If you know or suspect that inaccurate information is about to be published, you will need to act fast. Say the wrong thing, and the issue may snowball, say nothing and your silence may give the impression of guilt. The best tactic is to engage with a journalist and gather the information you need. The following checklist will help to ensure you know exactly who and what you are dealing with:

  • Ask the journalist for their name, email address and mobile number
  • Ask them to confirm the publication or broadcaster that they are working for or, if they are freelance, who they have been commissioned by
  • Ask them to specify the allegations intended for publication/broadcast in an email
  • Ask them to include their deadline for comment
  • Ask them when the piece will be published or broadcast
  • Ask the journalist to identify and provide any supporting documents/photographs if they have referred to any
  • Request time to investigate the matters raised, if necessary, with your legal representatives

Step 3 - Put the brakes on

Remember, most errors are mistakes made in good faith, arising from time constraints, sub-editing or a reliance on deficient or insufficient sources. Journalists do not want to get things wrong – so in many cases, taking the time to talk the reporter through the issues as you see them can yield excellent results.

Alistair Clay has found this approach very effective during the crisis. “Contrary to popular belief most journalists are decent people and they do want to get the story right. We have found, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis, that taking a more educational approach with journalists has really helped clients”.

Making time for education can work wonders. “Rather than rebutting allegations with a statement we have provided ‘media advisories’ that explain the true detail of the situation”, explains Clay. “More often than not this has resulted in a far more balanced telling of the story. Don’t see journalists as the enemy in this crisis – help them do the best job they can.”

If you feel this is still not likely to impact the article, it may be helpful to provide a statement for publication that accurately reflects your position. You can use the statement as both an opportunity to express your view on the allegations and set the record straight. Keeping your statement short will increase the chances of the publication or broadcast using it all.

However, if a conversation with the journalist in question doesn’t resolve the issue, the threat of being sued after publication can be a deterrent to publishing false or misleading information. Ensure the journalists understands the full risks of publishing. Always get advice from your legal representatives – it’s a powerful communications function that works hand in hand with its lawyers.

Step 4 – Damage control

If your business reputation has been damaged by a publication or broadcast there are steps you can take to repair it. These depend on the nature of the damage that was sustained - was the allegation inaccurate, misleading or defamatory or was it true and in the public interest?

If the allegation was true and in the public interest then you should do everything you can to communicate openly, take responsibility and put things right. You can then try to rebuild trust with consistent positive actions over time.

If the allegation was inaccurate, misleading or defamatory then you may want to seek a retraction and/or apology. Once the record has been corrected, the next step is to rebuild goodwill with a full and textured picture of the personal or corporate brand, consistently over time, so that people know you for more than an inaccurate story. The precise steps you may take will depend on a number of factors including what has been said, by whom, where and what impact it is having or could have.

Publishers around the world care about accuracy - gaining a reputation for publishing false information quickly devalues media brands. Correcting an article that remains online is not usually controversial. Most major publishers either sign up to regulatory codes (such as IPSO) and/or have their own editorial codes which oblige them to correct errors when brought to their attention. Such codes can be helpful when dealing with a publication in a country which does not have the same legal and regulatory framework as the UK.

Be acutely aware of accuracy

During times of uncertainty, accuracy and the language we use in communications take on a heightened significance. Not only do we need to be on the alert for fake news, but we must also take care not to let language adversely affect the way we think and respond to the COVID-19 virus (for example describing it as a ‘perfect storm’ – which might suggest there is little we can do to address it). Now more than ever, we must be rigorous in the pursuit of credible and knowledgeable sources, and we should not shy away from calling out those who seek to publish what is fake.

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About the Author

Magnus Boyd

Partner

Magnus protects individual and corporate reputations by helping clients to manage unwanted media attention. He also advises on information security and helps clients manage the risks to reputation that arise in the event of data loss.

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