How Credible Sources, Education and Innovation Can Curb the Fake News Pandemic

When Collins American Dictionary announced that “fake news” was its word of 2017, it defined the seemingly ubiquitous term as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” Collins also noted that usage of the term increased 365 percent since 2016.

Fake news has also been described as a threat to democracy, and experts worry about the negative influence it might have on the next generation of Americans who struggle to understand the difference between fact and fiction.

While the trend is something that should concern just about everyone, it’s especially important for public relations professionals to avoid shrugging fake news off as just the latest buzzword driven by political rhetoric. At Greentarget, we’re paying close attention to the topic – and we’re passionate about doing all we can to firm up faith in the media as legitimate sources of information.

Whether legitimate sources will be once again be embraced as credible is an open question – one on which experts are essentially split, according to a Pew Research study. The pessimists worry that “manipulative actors will use new digital tools to take advantage of humans’ inbred preference for comfort and convenience and their craving for the answers they find in reinforcing echo chambers.” The optimists believe that “the speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet, apps and platforms will be harnessed to rein in fake news and misinformation campaigns.”

We can’t predict the future, but we agree with the optimists in the Pew study. And we have the following predictions about how the fake news pandemic will diminish in the coming years:

2018: The Year of the Source

A recent assertion from some PR industry leaders that media relations is dead is something we wholeheartedly disagree with — and we’ll go a step further. In the fake news era, media relations is more important than ever. Forbes’ contributor Jade Faugno summed up our thoughts on this topic perfectly:

The stigma of “fake news” may cling to the popular consciousness for several years to come, but sophisticated audiences will continue to hold fast to reliable sources, which will only further demonstrate their value in a growing sea of misinformation.

Although the relationship between journalism and media relations is often cast as adversarial, our experiences with reporters show that they are dedicated – even desperate – when it comes to publishing stories that are factual and have reputable spokespeople who add value. We also believe executives will continue to view the news media as valuable and credible. In Greentarget’s 2017 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey, 95 percent of respondents said traditional sources like The Wall Street Journal and The Economist were the most credible sources of news – despite the fake news trend.

When it Comes to the News, Education Matters

“Young people’s ability to reason about the information can be summed up in one word: bleak.” That’s according to the authors of the Stanford University study that looked at whether middle school, high school and college students could decipher legitimate news from fake news. Lead author Sam Wineburg told NPR that “educational programs are the only way we can deal with these kinds of issues.” In a hopeful sign, some universities are now building news literacy classes into their curriculum.

At Greentarget, we also believe it’s crucial to educate the next generation of Americans about how to differentiate fact from fiction. That’s why we’re offering financial support to the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit dedicated to teaching middle and high school students how to use the standards of journalism to determine what information they should trust, share and act on. Count us as strong supporters of NLP’s focus to enlighten young Americans about the role of honest media in our democracy.

Technology and Innovation Can Help

As noted above, the evolution of technology was the top reason for optimism among respondents to the Pew study. We agree – but we also acknowledge that much work needs to be done amid rays of hope.

Late last year, it was reported that a group of college students designed a plug-in called Open Mind, designed to prevent false news. Created during a hackathon competition at Yale University, the plug-in works as a Chrome extension that uses sentiment analysis technology to analyze articles for bias – and steers users to alternative sources. The app’s creators will meet with members of Congress this spring, and Facebook, which was one of the sponsors of the competition, is interested in talking to the students as part of its ongoing work to address fake news.

One way leading technology companies, including Facebook and Google, are working to address fake news is through partnerships with fact-checking organizations. While it’s too early to evaluate how Google’s partnership is going, the efficacy of Facebook’s partnerships has been met with some criticism. Aaron Sharockman, executive editor of Politifact, a member of the coalition of fact-checkers who agreed to work with Facebook, addressed some speed bumps. “The reality is, there is too much content for us to check, and we imagine there is plenty more material in need of fact-checking that we aren’t seeing,” said Sharockman in an analysis that captures how complicated the fake news problem is.

At Greentarget, it’s in our DNA to direct smarter conversations and to support the core principles of journalism. We’re hopeful that through our ability to deliver credible sources to journalists, support efforts to help the younger generation tell the difference between fact and fiction, and advocate for innovation taking place to curb fake news, we can do our part in finding a solution to this complicated issue.

We wouldn’t hesitate to call fake news a pandemic – one that needs to be combatted to ensure the health of our democracy. Here’s hoping the top word of 2018 will be “legitimate news source.”

Since joining Greentarget ten years ago, Lisa has found great success as a highly-effective account manager and media relations expert.

During college basketball season, she can be found cheering on her Indiana University Hoosiers.