False news has always existed, although social networks and their great capacity to viralize all types of content have made them a phenomenon of unstoppable dimensions. A phenomenon, moreover, that is no longer linked only to political circles, but also reaches businesses and corporations around the world.
Disinformation is an evil that has found in social networks and digital tools a way of propagation that is difficult to control and that causes confusion and, in many occasions, alarm, as it is being demonstrated these days with the hoaxes and fake news created around the coronavirus, its effects and the management that has been carried out by the different countries. All disinformation campaigns have a common objective: to sow doubt in the population so that they act in one way or another, depending on the interests that move the campaign promoter. In the case of the COVID-19 that we are dealing with at the moment, the purpose has been to make citizens distrust the authorities, making them believe that the latter are always hiding something. The problem is that we all contribute to the spread of false news without being aware of it and, moreover, the possibility of being accepted as information is high, given that most of it is shared by friends, family and people we trust through WhatsApp, a supposedly private space far from the information noise of social networks.
The descriptive story around false news is known to all. There are many reflections, comments and interpretations that we are witnessing right now. However, I think it is appropriate to keep an explanation that I attended a few days ago during a videoconference organized by the Asociación Digitales. Ignacio Torreblanca, Director of the Madrid Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the breeding ground of misinformation that is plaguing the world is due to an “information crisis“, which is based on five pillars: confusion (citizens are not sure of the news they receive), cynicism (citizens stop paying attention and trusting), fragmentation (there are many information niches and biased conversations), responsibility (unregulated organizations) and apathy. This political scientist said that this crisis of information has its origin in the crisis of representative democracy and in the crisis of traditional media.
The truth is that, as we said at the beginning, this phenomenon is no longer only associated with political parties or governments. Its shockwave has reached the brands and advertisers. A study by the NGO Avaaz recently warned that YouTube’s algorithms not only contribute every day to spreading disinformation about climate change through its videos, but that the denial that exists about this issue appears to be sponsored by large companies such as Warner Bros, Decathlon, Samsug, Carrefour or organizations such as Greenpeace Spain or the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
But really, what is the problem with all this? That the companies involved in this case were not aware that their advertising messages were accompanying viral lies, something that can easily happen when using programmatic advertising tools, which analyze that the content is suitable for the advertising brand, but do not enter to assess the veracity of that published content. It is also true that little by little the big Internet players such as Google, Facebook or Twitter have started to take action against misinformation pressured by companies and institutions.
However, it is not only this type of advertising model that can damage a company’s image. We have recently witnessed several cases of fake news related to big brands such as Coca-Cola (about which it was said that their drinks contained parasites) or Mercadona (which saw a hoax spread around its mayonnaise), which leads us to consider it vital that companies take good note and take appropriate measures to prevent a disinformation campaign from causing irreparable damage to their reputation.
However, what measures can companies take to combat rumours and fake news?
First of all, the management of social networks and brand presence in the digital ecosystem must be more than exquisite. Any error in these platforms can be the source of a great fire. Brands must be aware of what is circulating in these channels at any given time, using analysis and monitoring tools. This may seem obvious, but not all companies do it.
Of course, it is essential to have a pre-crisis plan prepared, in which the spokesperson is determined, the strategic plan of the organization to act and deal with possible negative developments. Linked to this protocol, internal communication with employees and collaborators is very important, informing them of what the company’s position will be in the event that a false news item or rumour is spread and how they should act.
It is also very important that a counter-rumor group is created, which has the responsibility to spread truths that counteract the effect of the rumor. In this sense, a battery of clear and simple messages must be developed. From there, it is necessary to dominate the networks of influence with these counter-rumors, reaching the greatest number of channels possible. It would also be interesting to look for ways to ridicule the rumor or hoax, focusing on its ambiguities and denying with real and convincing data the propagating source.