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Is fake news new?

10th April 2017

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of representing Grayling as sponsor at an event to mark 25 years since the inception of Leeds Beckett University’s PR degree. Among many highlights was a panel discussion around fake news and the role of PR in the modern world.

Interestingly, many of the professionals both featured on the panel and in attendance could not agree on the definition of fake news, with much discussion around whether general PR ‘spin’ constitutes ‘fake’ news or if the term is dedicated to maliciously-created false content for financial, political or personal gain.

I think most people, myself included, accepted that PR is more about creating a perspective on a truth than fabrication (or I would certainly like to think that this is the moral compass we are working towards these days in the sector).

While there was a general consensus that the line is blurred between where PR ends and fake news begins, what was more controversial was the idea that ‘fake news’ is a new phenomenon.

Much of the panel agreed that the rise of social media and ‘citizen journalists’, many of whom do not have the critical skills or ethical code of conduct to analyse content in order to verify its truth in the way that a journalist would, have led to the increase of fake news and its ability to spread further and faster and influence more greatly. And to a certain extent, it is true that false content is certainly more easily available and shareable to a mass global audience thanks to the accessibility of social media.

Today’s ‘citizen journalists’ can lay their fingertips at and create manipulated content with alarming ease and with the right hashtag an ‘incriminating’ piece of ‘evidence’ can go viral within hours. We only have to look to the US elections as an example of this at play.

But, does ‘fake news’ really originate in the last few years and from the US election in particular? It’s become the buzz phrase since late last year, but has it always existed but in a different format?

As part of the debate, one audience member queried the role of the media and the establishment in reporting of UK events during the 1980s such as Hillsborough and the Miner’s Strike, many of which we can safely say included coverage that was false – not just PR spin, but completely fabricated stories.

Is the difference really that in the past the establishment needed to influence the mainstream media to disseminate false stories in order to support its cause, whereas now the key influencers are you and I on the street – happily liking and sharing content that we have no way of tracing back to a reputable source? Is the difference really where the power now lies?

Do we now live in a world where we trust what we read on Twitter and Facebook rather than in a national newspaper, even though those we receive our content from online are potentially even less qualified than we are to be sharing it? And what does this mean for the industry? We adeptly communicate with our clients’ key stakeholders and audiences via social media, but mitigating against the potential risk of fake news aimed at our clients is surely set to be the new thing in crisis management and we need to be prepared to tackle this.

Katie Eborall

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