How PR students are grappling with fake news on social media

The crisis of misinformation on digital media will have profound implications for the PR pros of tomorrow. Here’s how they are starting to think about the issue during PRSSA’s Ethics Month.

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Social media is an active and primary news source for many young Americans. A study conducted between late March and early April of 2020 found that 51% of American participants ages 18-24 referred to social media sites (Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok) for their coronavirus news. This is a troubling statistic given that social media has made it easy to consume disinformation disguised as truth.

Not only that, but some social media platforms, intentionally or not, actually encourage the spread of disinformation. Instagram (owned by Facebook) came under fire recently due to a study that found the site’s algorithm aided in the spread of disinformation by recommending conspiracy theory posts regarding the pandemic and vaccines. In response, both platforms added a banner beneath posts regarding COVID-19 that links to a pandemic information center.

While these fact-checking measures have the potential to help curb disinformation, public relations students and professionals need to ensure that they are on the lookout for disinformation to protect the brands and organizations that they represent. At PRSA and PRSSA, September is Ethics Month, an important time for us, and everyone, to recommit to leading with ethics throughout the year.

“I do see a lot of news on social media but I never take that as fact,” said Siobhan Richards, a student at the University of Rhode Island. “On top of researching and reading multiple articles, I also check them for bias. PR practitioners need to have the correct information at all times in order to respond to current events while representing their clients/brands.”

While social media is, more than ever, an essential tool for communications professionals and their clients to connect directly with consumers, foster brand awareness and provide content that consumers trust, we must all continue to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to ensuring that we are providing information that is factually correct.

“Trust is one of the most valuable assets communicators have, but it’s also the easiest asset to lose,” said Caleena Sugiharto, who attends California State University, Fullerton. “PRSA’s Code of Ethics reminds us that we’re here to help serve the public and maintain that trust. The spread of misinformation and disinformation is a constant challenge, which is why it’s so important for students and professionals at all stages of their careers to create and maintain a strong ethical foundation.”

“We’re all studying to enter an industry where honesty and integrity are the pillars of our jobs, an industry where distrust and misinformation can be dangerous,” agrees Kynsay Hunt, a student at the University of South Carolina.

“We as public relations students are constantly taught how much influence we have on various publics and companies,” said Julia Tharp, who attends Ball State University. “In today’s world especially, we have an unprecedented amount of reach thanks to the internet. When I was younger, my mother used to always tell me to ‘use my superpowers for good.’ The same can be said here. As a PRSSA member, the Code of Ethics has been a guiding hand helping me learn to maximize trust while minimizing harm.”

As Gen Z communications students continue to evolve from not only using social media but becoming professional practitioners who hold positions of leadership and influence, we, and indeed all of us have the opportunity to use our powers for good. Let’s do so wisely and ethically.

 

Catherine (Cat) Kalogeros is a communications and public relations double major at the University of Rhode Island. She currently serves as the 2021–2022 vice president of brand engagement for the PRSSA National Committee. Outside of PRSSA, Cat is the director of career and personal development for her chapter of Chi Omega. Please connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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