From the popularity of documentaries like The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma, and increasing talk of “fake news,” it is clear that people are interested in understanding what happens behind the scenes of social media platforms. Our digital world makes the spread of information as easy and fast as a wildfire – and that can implicate businesses just as much as the next political race. 

A Pew Research study in 2017 showed that 93% of Americans get their news, information, etc., online and 35% of this is from social media platforms directly. Given the centrality of these sites to our everyday life, ensuring that you are properly handling any content surrounding your business and brand is of utmost importance. The “trolls” are here to stay, so it’s time to find a way to live with them.

What is “fake news” and disinformation? 

Disinformation is defined as false information intended to mislead or deceive, while fake news is disinformation that is presented as news. While traditionally thought of within the political sphere, both exist across verticals. Fake news is comprised of three main sources

  1. Trolls: those motivated by spite to harm specific corporations 
  2. Profiteers: those seeking financial gain from the disinformation that could result in rise or fall of particular stocks
  3. Foreign powers: those outside of our country that could benefit from certain political actions 

Why do people care about ‘fake news’?

Through social media, information can now spread faster than it can be checked which has resulted in growing distrust of information being presented online. More than ever before, American’s are concerned with being sold misinformation or “fake news.” While it is possible that these terms can be thrown merely as a tactic to dismiss negative feedback or opinions of a particular person, company, or political party, that is not always the case. The challenge for brands is determining an ethical way to navigate this online minefield that draws a line between true false information and unfavorable content.

While hate speech or inaccurate information should absolutely be intercepted and debunked, censorship by media outlets, government or individual companies raises concerns of possibly infringing on the First Amendment of Freedom of Speech. The real issue here is the vague or subjective definition of what qualifies as disinformation. Is it mistakes in reporting, strong opinion editorials, official misstatements or just outright lies? One person may claim it to be disinformation and another may just say it’s their opinion, which would be protected under the First Amendment

What should businesses do?

Critics of social media censorship argue that banning bad content is socially riskier than allowing the content or addressing it head on. The fear is that this would promote a “global online hate ecology” whereby hateful or distorted content will come together in “global dark pools” that will magnify hate even further. Instead, engaging with the bad content and not silencing or censoring people may increase consumer loyalty by showing transparency in your brand. So what does that look like from a business standpoint, for disinformation can impact more than just politics?

Here are a few tips to consider for your business:

  • If presented with a clear false statement or libel, i.e content that qualifies as disinformation, don’t be afraid to use tools such as archiving or hiding comments or blocking “troll” accounts. 
  • Invest in technology that uses algorithms to locate, target and flag disinformation either on your business’s social media or even in the press at large. 
  • Using that technology and generally scanning what is being said about your company, engage with content directly by making statements that counter the disinformation being said, not just ignoring it. This will help you retain trust from your customers and business partners. 
  • Add “disputed news” tags to warn readers and viewers about contentious content or what you deem to be disinformation. This allows customers to consider possible inaccuracies without actually deleting the content and sparking a debate over censorship. 

Like never before, companies are forced to discern what is “fake news” and what is just a negative comment about their brands. The line between negative information and disinformation can be somewhat subjective, and businesses need to find a way to mitigate the effects of this content. Instead of deleting or blocking certain people from speaking and running the risk of infringing on people’s freedom of speech, your brand needs a plan.