The threat from disinformation is greater now than ever.
From the civil unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd to the coronavirus pandemic, public health and safety officials at all levels are quick to identify mis- and disinformation as legitimate threats to public health and safety, with several utilizing the term “infodemic” to illustrate how the spread of false information was akin to the spread of an actual virus. Given the media landscape and our hyper-connectivity via social, digital and mobile media, the analogy is entirely appropriate.
Along with sophisticated information warfare campaigns by foreign actors like Russia and China, both the pandemic and social unrest in Minneapolis and elsewhere have shone an important light on the considerable dangers associated with the spread of false information. These include mis-, dis-, and mal-information, as well as conspiracies; they’re not new and the threats they pose will outlive anything currently in the news.
Our upcoming election is sure to amplify the problem. Though mis-, dis-, and mal-information all are related to the spread of harmful information, they each are separate and distinct. Yet, each serves to undermine trust, erode communication channels, and significantly disrupt our democracy, communities, economy and places of work. Here are some helpful definitions:
- Misinformation is false information, though not created with negative intent.
- Disinformation is false information specifically created to harm a person or group.
- Mal-information is information based on reality, but used to inflict harm on a person or group.
While these threats and their proliferation are well-studied and defined, there isn’t a clear consensus on how to address them most effectively. Organized and proactive disinformation campaigns typically involve detailed research, planning and targeting. Further, all forms of mis-, dis-, and mal-information—even the basic rumor mill—include a process of seeding, sharing and amplification. These various phases represent ideal opportunities for mitigation and management.
Just as viruses constantly mutate, so does disinformation. Sources and breeding grounds range from geopolitical rivals to a former employee with an ax to grind, and from those with complex motives to those simply looking for an adrenaline rush.
Government and media reform are essential…but they’re not assured. So, organizations and individuals must identify tools and tactics independent of institutional change. Further, the actions of individuals are essential elements in the proliferation of all forms of false information and so must necessarily be the centerpiece of any mitigation plan.
Leaders of organizations, and others specifically tasked with addressing false information— including public relations professionals, human resource professionals and lawyers—need to look beyond their traditional “toolboxes” and consider new mitigation tactics based on behavioral science. As noted by Edward Bernays, those who understand the group mind are able to manipulate behavior, without those who are being manipulated even realizing it.
When information “tastes good” and is repeated with sufficient frequency, some will believe it, regardless of whether it’s accurate. Those tasked with dealing with mis-, dis-, and mal-information must have a thorough understanding of these illusory effects if they wish to successfully mitigate and manage.
- Understand the source. A long, complex list of behavioral, political, economic, communication and media issues impact the formation and proliferation of disinformation.
Key elements organizations must consider
- Ability and motivation to understand, prepare and plan for the threat will ultimately define successful mitigation.
- Understanding the value of the organization’s intangible assets, like reputation, trust, and brand, will impact mitigation. Trusted organizations with strong reputations generally have the durability and resilience to resist attack, thanks to their intangibles.
Essential tools for mitigating disinformation
- Real-time listening and monitoring to quickly identify false or misleading information.
- Robust communication infrastructure, processes, and channels—along with skillful professional counsel and support.
- Firmly established codes of ethics and a commitment to transparency.
Tactics for addressing disinformation
- Organizations should use their voice and proactively encourage key publics to pause, even briefly, to consider and/or verify the credibility of information before sharing it via social media. Akin to a public service announcement, organizations should simply remind people to “take five” before sharing. In addition, social media channels like Facebook and Twitter might consider specific, “pause to consider” messaging.
- Message intervention through pre-bunking, attitude inoculation, debunking, and fact-checking. While widely used, fact-checking simply can’t keep up with the volume of disinformation. Pre-buking and attitude inoculation are shown to be effective at building immunity and reducing susceptibility to disinformation. Debunking and fact-checking should use detailed messaging to counter false claims.
- Use and development of tools like online gaming offering Bad News, which has proven effective at inoculating players against fake news and misinformation.
- Activate credibility boosters like partnerships with trusted third parties, community relations efforts, and thought-leadership programs that enhance credibility and increase resilience in the face of an attack.
- Create messaging that is clear, consistent and concise—and which incorporates stories and visuals. Be mindful not to highlight false claims and consider using the “truth sandwich”: begin and end with the truth and avoid overemphasizing the falsehood (never share false claims without clarification). And, because voids of information provide an opportunity for disinformation, limit voids.
- Particularly when dealing with more susceptible publics, activate and support recognized media literacy programs to help create a less fertile environment for disinformation campaigns.
Limiting the spread of misinformation, through pre-bunking and other measures, also helps decrease exposure to dubious claims at the core of many conspiracy theories.
The potential results of a successful mitigation effort are many, and the ultimate goal is enabling key publics to make more informed decisions. This said, organizations need to recognize that there are limitations to what can be accomplished. Total elimination of all sources and adversaries isn’t plausible.
No matter their mission or size, all organizations are potential victims of disinformation, either by a direct attack or a shockwave from larger attacks. As the keeper of intangible assets, public relations professionals—especially those who understand the entire paid, earned, shared and owned media environment—are ideally positioned to direct planning and mitigation efforts.
Michael Cherenson, APR is the executive vice president for public relations for SCG Advertising + Public Relations.