Insight: Lies have speed, but truth has endurance

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THE PR industry is playing a vital role in cross-sector efforts to combat misinformation, through our role as media educators, gatekeepers, strategic advisors, and advocates of high ethical standards, writes Rob Morbin.

To tackle this beast, a productive alliance with tech and professional journalism is crucial. Despite a slight recent decline in activity, Facebook alone has more than 1.9 billion daily users, without even including Meta’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and a lot of ad money. Tech platforms like these do not create content and unlike traditional broadcast and print, still have very few meaningful legal responsibilities regarding the reliability, credibility or authenticity of content shared on their platforms. Given this unprecedented scale, speed, freedom, and financial incentive, it’s no surprise that misinformation most quickly and recklessly spreads through social media and instant messaging. For legislators to deploy the same methods used to tame traditional media for social media, is like using a dog-lead to corral Godzilla. 

Mark Twain’s view that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” has even more resonance in the digital age. A senior UK civil servant told me that when working on a foreign diplomatic crisis a few years ago, over twenty manufactured false narratives had been created in 24 hours and masterfully spread at speed by a foreign government to ensure that the truth would be shrouded in doubt. Some misinformation is more accidental or opportunistic though. In a highly competitive environment of virtually infinite media content produced at speed, some amateur, some professional, there is a war of attrition. The desperation for speed can result in ever-declining quality standards and a flippant attitude to truth and accuracy. Amateur content can be compelling and cult-like, making it a tough rival for professional journalism. If targeted ad money has become the most lucrative way to survive for some free tabloid-style publishers, the slide towards unreliable sources and quickfire clickbait is all too tempting. It’s also tempting for users to share with friends and family, as I know I occasionally do, without always checking all the facts. It’s important to acknowledge we all lie loudest when we lie to ourselves. 

However, there is hope, and there are tools at our disposal to tame Godzilla. The social media giants know that if quality journalism suffers, so does their product. Steps are already being taken by platforms and legislators to improve standards. In addition to visible updates like twitter banning political paid content, highlighting disputed claims, WhatsApp’s “forwarded many times” label, stricter rules around labelling influencers and sponsorship content; platforms are taking more seriously their responsibility to update and enforce policies on misinformation. This is a start, albeit a slow one, but the solution does not lay at the feet of tech companies and legislators alone, PR firms have a big role to play. 

Most reasonable media users already agree that fact checking, discrediting misleading narratives and outright industrial scale fakery are to be stopped. Unfortunately, we disagree on what those facts are, and spotting AI bots or masterfully created fake news isn’t easy. Therefore, investing in digital media literacy and education must be at the heart of any solution, and where PR professionals and our relationships with the media, our clients, and customers, comes into play. 

A new ICCO paper produced in partnership with the Council of Europe, sets out this ambition and the need for PR professionals to engage in the solutions and with the stakeholders. The paper also advocates balance and alliance forming. Platforms like twitter have enabled politics to reach more people, connect issues globally, make the powerful accountable and enable a greater range of voices and perspectives to be heard than in traditional media. Nigeria’s twitter ban last year was a violation of free speech and a reminder that it is possible to over-regulate platforms, which wouldn’t be helpful either. 

Our work with the Council of Europe (COE), enables ICCO to give PR agencies a voice and join in the dialogue as we work together to combat misinformation. Indeed, tech firms like Meta are engaged in COE groups and by working with them we can ensure that the full picture is considered as we collectively fight misinformation. We can begin by providing clients with industry-approved standards and guidelines, by demonstrating the effectiveness of enforcing those standards. Ensure clients are educated on the latest technologies, how they are used, highlighting the latest platform policy changes, rules around environmental claims, medical claims, political claims, reliability of research, and refusing to push messages that have not been completely fact-checked. Pushing clients towards media strategies that aim to build trust over a long period of time, and not take advantage of moral grey areas or short-term opportunism. In turn, engage with tech companies – exchange insight, build a new way together. Finally, it is essential to support trusted, quality, professional journalism and journalists that use reliable sources, and to enforce a strict policy of not working with media that doesn’t adhere to this standard.  

Misinformation will continue to morph, to adapt and to seep through barriers that are built to block it. However, as ethical PR professionals, we will be part of the continuous fight to ensure the truth always has the upper hand, and ultimately endures. 

Rob Morbin is deputy chief executive at the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), the not-for-profit global membership body for PR associations and their members, covering 81 countries and over 3,000 agencies worldwide. Based in London, Morbin was previously head of engagement at the Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR), and before that he held a variety of international business, marketing, and policy roles within the automotive and logistics sectors.