Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
“Fake news” is not just a buzzword. Beyond conspicuously ridiculous conspiracy theories and sensationalist headlines, fake news threatens the very foundations of our information ecosystem. The damage is real indeed: reputations are tarnished, businesses suffer devastating losses, and the line between truth and lie is blurred.
But how do we even start solving the fake news problem? In the U.S., where legal constraints prevent false information from being removed from the internet, it seems like damage control and public calls for stricter regulations are society’s best shots at tackling the issue.
The illusion of credibility
The most troubling aspect of fake news is its uncanny ability to blend with genuine news content. False stories often mimic the format and style of reputable news outlets. Do you remember the story about Pope Francis allegedly endorsing Trump as a candidate for the presidency? While the piece originated on a satirical website, it spiraled out of control too quickly.
When it comes to social media, the lines between truth and falsehood blur further. Anonymous blogs and vague communities are a fertile breeding ground for fake news. From QAnon conspiracies to unfounded health claims, misinformation finds refuge in the shadowy recesses of the internet, threatening to go viral.
Fake news is often associated with dirty political games, but not just politicians are thrown under the bus of misinformation. Fake news has become a weapon of business competition where rivals use fabricated stories to sabotage competitors and take their spot under the sun. In most cases, however, it’s simply impossible to know who started a fake story – was it a rival or a random internet user?
Once the news is out, it doesn’t matter anyway. From the false rumors about Lululemon’s see-through yoga pants causing stock troubles to the outrageous Pizzagate scandal that led to gun violence, fake news has shown it can cause real harm to both businesses and people.
The legal hiccup
Addressing fake news within a legal framework is a challenge of its own. The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and expression in the United States, and that covers the right to disseminate false or controversial information. Outlawing fake news could tread dangerously close to censorship and raise concerns about infringing on this fundamental right.
On top of that, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity to internet platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. In other words, these digital giants are protected from being treated as publishers of the information users provide, safeguarding them from lawsuits. This unique legal landscape in the U.S. allows social media and search engines to essentially ignore their role in spreading fake news and avoid legal repercussions.
What does it mean for individuals and businesses that have suffered from fake news? In short – you don’t have many strings to pull. Often, fake stories come from anonymous sources, meaning there’s no one to file a defamation lawsuit against. When a defamatory post or article lacks clear authorship, pursuing legal action resembles chasing a ghost. In such cases, the targets of misinformation may try to sue the platform or outlet for negligence. However, these lawsuits can drag on for years, draining both the victim’s energy and pockets. All the while, reputations continue to erode, and businesses suffer.
In the context of today’s cancel culture era, when people quickly turn against controversial brands and figures, fake news can seriously damage a person’s or a company’s reputation. Once your image is stained, it’s tough to bounce back, and it takes a lot of effort to recover from it.
PR in the fight against fake news
Against the background of the legal hiccup with fake news, P.R. is probably the only asset businesses and public figures have at their disposal. P.R. experts help the misinformation victims craft well-thought-out response strategies to tackle fake news head-on. A good damage control P.R. campaign addresses misinformation with facts, data and transparency. It’s not just about mitigating the backlash – P.R. efforts build credibility over time, fostering trust among a brand’s customers and audiences.
P.R. also comes in handy when cultivating strong, enduring relationships with stakeholders. These relationships serve as a shield against the corrosive effects of fake news. By maintaining open lines of communication with industry leaders, experts and influencers, a brand can quickly and organically rally support and credibility in the face of fake news, ensuring that trusted voices can vouch for the accuracy and integrity of their messaging.
While PR doesn’t make people and companies bulletproof against misinformation and fake narratives, it equips them with the tools and strategies to effectively combat and mitigate the damage caused by this phenomenon.
The call for stricter regulation
Needless to say, legal adjustments to the current digital media reality should be made and made quickly. It is essential to protect freedom of speech and expression, but a balance must be struck to prevent the unchecked dissemination of fake news. Stricter regulations could compel social media platforms and search engines to take a more proactive role in curbing the spread of false narratives.
How do we do it without compromising the fundamental principles of free speech? This is the question better addressed to the legal minds. In the meantime, we must remain vigilant and proactive, promoting media literacy, fact-checking and responsible online behavior as part of our collective effort to combat the scourge of misinformation.