September 8, 2021
Do Journalists Think It’s Time to Hold Social Media Accountable for Fake News?
Cries of “fake news” have become a favored weapon of bad actors looking to cast doubt on credible reporting. But news that is actually fake is a clear threat to our very democracy — and it’s found a prominent breeding ground on increasingly powerful social media platforms.
Last year, our Fake News 2020 report found that 80 percent of journalists strongly believe misinformation has negatively impacted journalism. Furthermore, 56 percent said social media is the single greatest fake news distribution threat. So when we release our second Fake News report later this fall, we’re going to zero in on social media’s role.
And what, if anything, journalists think should be done about it.
Social Media Both Supports and Undermines Credible Journalism
Journalists rely on social media to do their jobs. Many comb social media for story ideas or leads, use it to obtain and verify sources, and share their stories to boost engagement.
But social media can be a double-edged sword, even if you look past the effects Facebook and other platforms have had on the advertising models of traditional news outlets. Journalists use social media to get reality-based news in front of a broader readership, but propagators of disinformation use it too. From there, audiences can indiscriminately share and disseminate stories (real or fake) quickly and easily. In turn, social media becomes an echo chamber, making it easy for audiences to attack and discredit those same stories.
Social media, obviously, isn’t going away. And because it is one of the main fronts in the fight against fake news, it’s time to sound a battle cry. Whether or not the government ultimately intervenes, we as PR professionals need to do our part to support journalists, amplify truthful news stories, call out fake news when we see it, and commit ourselves to high levels of transparency and ethical behavior.
2021 Fake News Report: A Preview
In our report last year, journalists overwhelmingly felt it was their responsibility to fight fake news. But they were split on whether the government should get involved. They didn’t agree about whether the U.S. should impose anti-fake news laws to combat misleading information. More than a third (39 percent) supported or strongly supported anti-fake news laws, while nearly as many (35 percent) did not support such laws. About a quarter – 26 percent – said they were neutral toward the potential laws.
But that was before a contentious campaign season, disputed election results, and an unprecedented insurrection at the nation’s capitol — spurred in large part by groups using social media to get their message across.
And as we face continued vaccination hesitancy and a resurgence of Delta variant-related positive COVID-19 cases, we can’t help but wonder: Have we finally reached a critical turning point in the fight against fake news?
Evaluating the Communications Decency Act, Section 230
We wanted to know specifically what journalists think about calls to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which grants internet platforms legal immunity for most content posted by their users. Do journalists feel this act currently grants social media platforms too much leniency? Especially when we factor in alternative, far-right platforms like Parlor, Gab, and MeWe?
The White House has initiated conversations to hold social media platforms more accountable for their content. Is this appropriate? Will this assure journalists more that their credible news stories might have a chance of breaking through the fake news maelstrom? Will such reforms go far enough?
Weighing Additional Governmental Interventions to Combat Fake News
Reforming Section 230 is just one commonly discussed approach aimed at limiting the flow of fake news on social media platforms. Do journalists think the Biden administration should generally prioritize combating fake news – and, if so, how should do they think it be done? Here are some other options:
- Regulating and enforcing antitrust laws
- Revising libel and slander laws
- Revising the “fair use” doctrine
We’ll also ask journalists for their thoughts on a variety of other issues related to fake news including how the term has evolved in the last year.
How PR Can Help Journalists Fight Fake News
While we may not be on the front lines, PR professionals can and need to support their colleagues in battling the dissemination of fake news. As part of our 2020 report, we vowed to take the following steps. And we encourage your organization to do the same.
- Support the work of reporters and editors. We value the work that journalists do every day, and we appreciate the privilege of collaborating with them. We pledge to continue to support journalists and amplify reality-based news sources.
- Stress ethics and transparency. We strongly discourage lying to journalists or putting forth non-credible sources, and we pledge to always fact-check our work. Because we embrace transparent relationships with journalists (and the public), we will always be responsive to journalists’ questions and endeavor to help them solve problems when we can.
- Put the audience first. Many PR practitioners hone their craft by developing the perfect pitch to get a reporter’s attention. That is, of course, important. But we believe in only offering insights that a journalist’s audience cares about.
- Advocate against fake news. We believe it is our responsibility to help others understand the difference between real and fake news, thereby hindering the spread of fake news. Since we believe this starts with educating the next generation of active news consumers, we pledge to take a leadership role for future PR practitioners today, tomorrow, and always.
We’ve followed through on this pledge by devoting podcast episodes to the topic, participating in webinars, lending our voice to roundtables with future PR leaders such as PRSA Voices 4 Everyone, and raising awareness through articles like this one. And we’ll continue to advocate as a voice for truth and transparency in journalism especially while fake news remains a threat.