By Stefan Rollnick, misinformation strategist and Head of The Misinformation Cell,Global
communications agency Lynn
Misinformation is a billion dollar industry creating eye-watering revenues for social media platforms and the legions of users who spread ‘fake news’. Fake accounts, bot farms and mysterious algorithms create breeding grounds for inaccurate information spread and the consequences can be lethal when it comes to subjects like vaccine misinformation.
Brands can take action by pulling their ads from platforms which are deemed too risky, as we saw with the advertiser exodus from Twitter over concerns for content moderation. But in a world where a ‘social media pile on’ can seemingly emerge from nowhere and reach tsunami status within hours, brands need to be on the front foot when it comes to tackling misinformation or risk huge collateral damage.
Misinformation and the consequences
Misinformation is the spread of false or inaccurate information – often spread widely with others – that does not necessarily carry the intent to deceive. Disinformation is the deliberate and knowing spread of false information. Both forms are hugely damaging to a brand and can lead to a decrease in sales, loss of consumers and long term harm for the business.
The threat of misinformation is something that all businesses need to be made aware of, and more importantly, business leaders need to ensure they are integrating misinformation strategies into the core of their operations.
How to avoid the fallout
Trust and transparency is key to avoiding misinformation fallout. Brands can inspire trust in their consumers when they maintain a history of doing what they promise, and acting to support their values. For example, brands who promote gender equality, but don’t have internal support for women, may appear performative and insincere. In these situations, when people speak out, brands can risk damaging their reputation and consumers will begin to be sceptical of what they say.
The best time to fight the fallout is before it hits. Brands who are proactive when it comes to misinformation will shift their mindset away from this fight as a form of crisis communication planning. Understanding what is circulating online before it hits the mainstream will enable brands to monitor and identify threats, before it’s too late. By establishing if anything online is likely to resonate with a brand’s audience, they can figure out if it is a big risk for any misinformation fallout.
Implementing into brand strategies
Once a brand has established if anything online will resonate with its audience and established the risk, brands can map narrative threats and build out insights. These insights need to be implemented into brand strategy and messaging. This will make sure a brand communicates with its audience in a way that undermines these narratives, before they hit the mainstream.
All brands should have a strategy in place for a misinformation crisis. By planning how to communicate the facts to its audience, brands should be able to quickly and clearly communicate to its audience if / when anything goes wrong.
One thing every brand should have prepared are its “deeper truths”. At times, the best response to misinformation isn’t a fact, but a deeper truth, or an alternative narrative. When a misinformation spread is tied up with users’ more deeply held beliefs, then the best course of action for brands may be to focus on challenging the narrative, rather than any false information that’s shared. The best way to implement this “deeper truth” is to ensure that it resonates with a brand’s core beliefs. By taking into consideration consumers’ beliefs, and reflecting this in their narrative, brands will be able to prevent damage caused by misinformation.
How to respond to a false narrative
Sometimes misinformation becomes so widespread, and a direct threat to our target behaviours (such as product purchases or vaccination sign-ups), that we have to directly rebut it. However, first of all, brands need to ensure that they are dealing with misinformation, rather than disinformation.
To do this, a brand needs to establish why people are spreading this information. If it is inaccurate but without deliberate intent, it’s misinformation, if deliberate it’s disinformation. While the line is often blurred, if you can trace the information back to someone who is spreading it deliberately, the best course may be legal action.
The UK government’s advice on misinformation recommends that communicators only directly rebut misinformation if it threatens target behaviours and it does not contradict the audience’s core beliefs – as this can produce an adverse reaction. So, brands need to ask themselves if this information will cause behaviour which is harmful. For example, does this information reduce sales, or impact your reputation. If it isn’t causing harm, it likely doesn’t need a response and engaging with it could in fact make matters worse.