Aiken PR

The Briefing

Our View – February 2017

by Claire Aiken

02/03/2017

Driving back from Dublin a couple of weeks ago I was listening to BBC Radio 4 where the host and a panel were talking about some of the world’s greatest cons.

Driving back from Dublin a couple of weeks ago I was listening to BBC Radio 4 where the host and a panel were talking about some of the world’s greatest cons. I was gripped by the dialogue surrounding an officer in the British Army who served in the Peninsular War in the early 1800’s.  General Gregor MacGregor turned out to be one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century.  MacGregor used his standing and title to capitalise on people’s hopes and aspirations selling Londoners a promised land in a fictional region of Central America called ‘Poyais’.  The self–proclaimed ruler, sold titles and lands with hundreds of people investing their life savings and around 250 ‘emigrating’ to what was untouched jungle. More than half of the emigrants eventually died on the island unable to navigate the daunting return journey.

The story got me thinking about how, through the annals of time there has always been a willingness with some people, to believe what seems to be improbable scenarios.  Indeed the saga that is fake news, which is besieging the internet and indeed the wider media, is not a new phenomenon but dates as far back as 100 years.  In 1917, during the First World War a number of Britain’s most influential and respected newspapers, including the Times and the Daily Mail published a hoax story, which also appeared in the North China Daily News, stating that Kaiser’s forces were extracting glycerin from dead soldiers.

It is claimed the story was part of an offensive by Britain to bring China into the Great War, on the allied forces side.  China duly declared war on Germany on 14 August 1917, yet it wasn’t until a number of years after this, when peace had been restored, that Sir Austen Chamberlain admitted in a Commons statement in 1925, that there was ‘never any foundation’ for the reports.

The issue of fake news of course, has grown exponentially in the digital age reaching unprecedented levels through the influence of social media.  How ironic it was that Michael Gove, in his capacity as a journalist, was one of the first international politicians to meet Donald Trump.  There’s no evidence or suggestion that Gove or indeed Trump had direct influence on fake news or ‘post truths’ on Brexit or the Presidential election but there is evidence that their respective campaigns were influenced by it.  Two examples that stand out are the claim that the NHS would be £350m a week better off post Brexit and Russian propagation of pro Trump propaganda through social media.  Steve Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager claimed that online media outlets like Breitbart were synonymous with fake news, where the right wing Steve Bannon now Chief Strategist to the White House, and former CEO of Trump’s Presidential campaign, was the Executive Chairman.

When Apple’s Tim Cook, one of the most globally influential corporate leaders says that fake news is ‘Killing People’s Minds’ and is one of the ‘chief problems’ that the technology sector must tackle, it’s time to sit up and take notice.  It is an area that the business community simply cannot ignore with corporate reputation, brand trust and share price potentially being adversely affected.

Late last year shares in the French construction company Vinci, which has businesses in more than 100 countries, fell by more than 18% when a fake press release was issued claiming that  the firm would restate its accounts and that its CFO was being sacked.  The story was published on a number of media outlets including leading business and financial markets source, Bloomberg.

Far from being confined to national and global issues, the fake news phenomenon also impacts the local arena. Here in Northern Ireland media outlets, seasoned commentators and politicians have all been accused of falling foul of it. Jude Collins the renowned blogger and media contributor apologised for publishing fake news on links which related Arlene Foster to a Fermanagh wood product supplier with leading blogging website Slugger O’Toole accusing BBC NI and Nelson McCausland MLA of fuelling misinformation on the cost of the Welsh language.

One of biggest challenges for people is actually differentiating what is fake news and what is not whether they are reading it, seeing it or hearing it.   Professor Nicole A. Cooke of the University of Illinois’ cites slight modifications to familiar domains as being a key part of the digital problem, and a common tactic used to peddle false news, with the ‘at first glance’ reputable appearance of sites such as abcnews.co.co.

A survey by Channel 4 News has demonstrated the impact of the problem with only 4% of respondents that were shown three true and three fake headlines, accurately differentiating between them.  According Stanford University this analysis is worst amongst the next generation of civic and corporate leaders, with teenagers most likely to absorb news without considering the source.   

The power of the media to set the news agenda has never been more cogent and while it recognises the challenges that fake news presents, what is it actually doing to stem the tide?  According to Donald Trump, mainstream media are the catalyst for much of the fake news.   Locally, nationally and internationally the media needs to be more circumspect about the source of its stories, from where and how it shares to robustly scrutinising sources to dispel strongly held perceptions that it is not doing enough. 

The leading technology influencers in the world have been vocal but have made no targeted commitments to stem the flow of fake news. Tim Cook, said that firms such as his needed to create tools that would help restrict the spread of falsehoods, without impeaching on freedom of speech.  Mark Zuckerberg too, in an open 6,500 word letter on his Facebook page outlined his plan ‘to come together to build a global community that works for everyone’ but rather than ‘banning misinformation’ his sites’ approach would be on ‘surfacing additional perspectives and information’.  In a direct action to redress the fake news tide, Facebook has updated its formula for trending which now factors in the breadth of conversations as well as the amount of people that are talking about a story or article.

While it is human nature, part of the problem is also the willing ear, the fascination for rumour and gossip which is all the more enticing when there is inferred lurid detail.  The appalling smearing of Maurice McCabe, which has recently been highlighted by the Irish media, is an example of how this appetite can be exploited through the imperious and disturbing abuse of power by public bodies.  There is a lesson for us all in this, and the need for everyone to be discerning and resourceful in considering the validity of all news sources before blogging, liking, sharing or retweeting.

What we can be sure about is that the business community along with all other facets of civic society need be increasingly wary of fake news and the impact that it can have.