Over the past couple of weeks, I have been gnashing my teeth at the uproar around ‘false news’ as if it were some new phenomenon. It’s not. It is what has been known for centuries as a rumour. Re-branding it ‘false news’ doesn’t make it new and modern — it remains a rumour.
What is different, however, is the delivery of the rumour and the speed at which it can gain momentum. At the time when Charles Dickens had Gradgrind in Hard Times obsessed with ‘facts’, rumours were spread in coffee houses and taverns, with newspapers not being read by the general population. Many a rumour would die a death before they got beyond the second cup.
Now, anyone can post anything on social media and if enough people read it, like it and retweet it the content will take on a life of its own — be it fact or fiction. It is being taken as truth because it is online and someone you know has put it in front of you.
I have noticed a plethora of schoolteachers posting online a short piece asking for retweets or reposts so that they can demonstrate to their students the speed at which a story can travel around the world. A simple but effective way of demonstrating how fast misinformation can spread.
Tim Cook, Apple CEO, on a visit to the UK last week stated that he believes “fake news is killing people’s minds’. Killing is probably a bit strong but it is certainly destroying people’s ability to sort fact from fiction.
As a PR it is my job to demonstrate the worth of my client, or its product, whilst sticking to true demonstrable facts. For example, we cannot allow “world’s best” but can go with “one of the world’s best” — one can be easily disputed the other not so.
This is a filter we use at our desks but is it one that we apply to our cyberlife? I do hope so.