December 15, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
Fake news exploded, literally, earlier this month when a gunman allegedly fired an assault rifle inside Comet Pizza in Washington. His motivation? Reports that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a child sex operation amidst the pasta and provolone.
The story would be funny, if not for the fact that lives were endangered by his actions.
Fake news and its close cousin satirical news — which admittedly sounds better — are not new. The Onion has been around since 1988, and Andy Borowitz has penned satire for The New Yorker since 2012. But they both can be very real.
A survey by BuzzFeed shows that most Americans who see fake news headlines believe them. For example, 64 percent of respondents who recall seeing this headline — “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” — believed it. Eighty-one percent believed FBI Director James Comey put a Trump sign on his front lawn. And 72 percent of those who recalled seeing the headline “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” thought it was true.
Is satire OK, but fake news is not? That is a question political pundits, constitutional scholars, campaign operatives, citizens, voters and consumers will try to answer. But one thing is pretty clear: Fake news and satire are here to stay in both traditional media and, more importantly, long-form social media.
PR pros cannot ignore the rise of satire and fake news. Making news is at the core of our jobs. We spend a lot of time extending the news, making sure everyone we want to see it does. We tweet it, post pictures to multiple social media platforms, and encourage others to spread the news by participating in it and sharing it. We work to make news intimate and touchable. Our clients have a lot to lose if consumers and other stakeholders accept the notion that some, most or all news is fake, and if they can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary.
How can we help them determine what is real news and what is fake or satire? Here are a few suggestions.
First, we have to agree that real is in the eye of the beholder and work to give that eye as much context as we can to help others assess the value and veracity of news. Regularly, we encourage our clients and their brands to be authentic, thorough and transparent. We do this because the environment is dynamic, and people have multiple sources of information about brands, public policy questions and celebrities. If we are authentic, thorough and transparent – that is, if we are honest – we can control the narrative. If not, the door is open for others to define us.
Second, we as an industry must support independent fact checkers. There are a number of reporters and websites that fact check the news. Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post writes regularly on claims made by politicians and grades on a four point Pinocchio scale. He recently fact checked the Obama administration’s claim that 800,000 manufacturing jobs were added during Obama’s presidency, giving it two Pinocchios. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just posted a video on how to spot fake news. Kessler, FactCheck.org and others are a start, but they are fighting a losing battle against the torrent of fake news and satire. We need more validators using the right tools to fact check and communicate their findings.
Third, our schools need to rethink civics education and give students the specific skills they need to judge news. Let’s take the tools students have in their hands — their smartphones and iPads — and use them as a learning platform. Let’s dive into their world and help them discern what is real and what is rumor. They already know when some things are 2G2BT or a CWOT, and when what they are saying is JMO. Communicators and educators can work with state and local school systems to develop curricula and materials for multiple grade levels with the hope that we can play a new role in citizen journalism.
Telling it like it is and pointing a finger at fake news and satire gives us tools that may help in the short term. But until voters, citizens and consumers have the ability to look at fake news and satire, see it for what it is and make judgments about its value, we run the risk of this destructive path only getting worse. The next episode in a pizzeria may not end without injury.
Will these steps end fake news and satire? No. Will it help people make sense of the information they receive? That’s our hope.
Scott Widmeyer is the founding managing partner at Finn Partners and the founder of Widmeyer Communications. Marty Machowsky is senior counsel at Finn Partners.