Tackling the challenge of fake news Article icon


Helen Dunne reviews a lively breakfast discussion

Simon Henrick, head of news and issues, Direct Line
On February 16, 2017, somebody posted on Facebook that one of our security guards had soaked three homeless people outside our Leeds office. It claimed that, when confronted, the security guard said They deserved it. Suddenly social media went mad. People were asking questions and demanding answers. An activist group came into our reception filming and being quite aggressive. Pictures of the security guard were posted, but it was not the right one. Fortunately, we had a very empowered individual who went outside, spoke to the three homeless men and actually bought them new sleeping bags. But at this point, we didn’t know if the allegation was true, we went into action. From the PR and comms team, we were working closely with the social media team and we just drafting lines: our key point was We need to investigate this. No matter what anybody asked, we stuck to that. The BBC ran the story. Metro ran it. Every time a news story appeared, momentum on social media built up again, but we were still trying to find out what had happened.

The next morning, it had died down but we still carried on with our investigation. There are no CCTV cameras outside in our building, so we started to approach other premises about checking their footage, although that brings issues with Data Protection. By now, we also realised that the individual who had made the claim had not actually witnessed anything, but was following an earlier tweet. We checked out the Facebook post, and saw it had been edited three times. There was no mention of soaking in the first two. Then we heard that a similar claim had been made against Debenhams in December, and the security guard had said the same words. We were beginning to think Okay, this doesn’t feel right. I had also thought it was strange that, in this modern age, nobody had filmed the confrontation.

We were then called by The Mirror, who said that they had spoken to several homeless people, and one had claimed our security guard had threatened him. But we were beginning to think that all of this was linked to the activist group, who were planning a march that weekend. Homelessness is a big issue in Leeds. I told the journalist that we were beginning to fear for our staff’s safety, and I did something I would not normally do: I emailed her, so that my concerns were on record. The story about the soaking ran in The Mirror, and social media momentum built up again. Sky News rang but didn’t run the story. At this point, we had drafted lines for every possible outcome.

It was all a complete fabrication. A member of the public had complained that a homeless person had urinated in our doorway. A security guard had asked three individuals to move, before he threw a bucket of water into the doorway. But it was on a slight hill, and some of the water trickled down onto the cardboard they were sleeping on. Two had moved away and one hadn’t. We got signed witness statements from people who had seen what had happened.

We had some learnings. We had seen how people had been extremely aggressive towards our security guards, particularly the one who’s photo had been posted. [After finding out the truth of the issue] we decided not to issue any statement. We had found out that negative news flies [but nobody was going to post any correction]. Instead, we background briefed journalists and if somebody tweeted the story, we responded with a statement.

We were surprised by the pace, the speed, with which this emerged. You do naturally feel that you want to get justice, but you can’t. Social media doesn’t listen. We felt if we put out a formal statement, it wouldn’t be believed by some and the momentum would start again.

The trouble is that an organisation runs at a different speed. We are a responsible business and we investigate things thoroughly, and we weren’t going to cut corners despite the speed of this. The allegations emerged on a Thursday, but we didn’t get any witness statements until the Monday. There is also a cost to a business. We had to increase security and to pay investigators to work over a weekend. Our staff were also upset: we had to control them, and stop them from tweeting.

Malcolm Moore, UK news editor, Financial Times
We cannot run a story unless we have two basic sources independently confirming it. That is our basic rule. The problem is that not everybody is going with that rule. If something goes viral, there is a huge pressure on media organisations to follow that up.

We are living in a highly political world, and the media has divided across those lines. But one thing to note about a lot of these stories is that they are particularly tailored for a specific audience, and those people are not going to believe any denials. We saw this during the Brexit campaign. A classic piece of fake news claimed £350 million going to the NHS; that was clearly a political slogan that they knew was untrue, everybody knew was untrue but they kept saying it and it had a great effect. The mistake the Remain Campaign made was to respond to it; all they did was to repeat it, over again, and embed it in people’s minds.

We don’t think you can debunk fake news by counter-factual claims. You can go through the £350 million figure, and try to explain that line by line, but we don’t think people believe that. So we have increased the amount of human narrative that we are injecting into our coverage. The best thing to do is to provide context, show how it affects people or influences the way they are living their lives, and how that is different from the narrative that is being presented in fake news. The Financial Times can report a little drily, and we haven’t changed that. But we are also trying to show how policies affect people.

Simply rebutting facts or non-facts with facts is not, in itself, an effective strategy to change people’s views.

Dan Roberts, Brexit policy editor, The Guardian
I think we need to caution against terminology. Everyone will have different views as to what constitutes fake news. I’ve just come from four years covering Washington, two years covering the election, and watched the migration of this term. I trace it back to a Left critique of Trump, where he appeared to make up so many things that went unchecked that he was often accused of lying and making things up. He very cleverly turned the tables, and is now using it [against the media], and it has now become a term of abuse that can be used to mean whatever anybody wants it to mean when they don’t like the story. That can encompass everything from I don’t like what you’re saying to I think it’s a total lie.

I’m more interested in the extreme end, which I think has got extra zip because of the fragmentation of the media. Stories that have no or very little basis in fact can go viral. I think we have to be careful about differentiating between stories that get completely out of control, and the rumour mill flies, and stories that are entirely fabricated, often for commercial or political ends. They seem particularly pernicious.

At the heart of every story that we all fight about and disagree about every day, there is usually some sort of basis in fact, which might be a trickle of water on cardboard. [I think fake news is something different.] During the height of the Presidential campaign, there was a deliberate attempt to smear the Clintons, which was admitted by some Trump supporters. They made up a story that in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, there was a dungeon where children were being held by the Clinton family for a sex ring. You couldn’t imagine a more preposterous story. This was entirely done to undermine the Clintons. But this got to the point where somebody in North Caroline got a gun, got into his pick up and drove to Washington and shot up the pizza restaurant. It was insane. It was completely malicious fake news, propagated by websites operating in Moldova. I think that is a new thing, and it is to do with the reach of Twitter and Facebook and other platforms.

I would describe £350 million going to the NHS as political spin, rather than fake news. There’s a grain of something there: there’s a debate over budget, there’s a debate over priorities. Clearly it needed to be challenged. We need to go down rabbit holes. This was not a confected story; there was a debate about how much the UK spends on the EU. A lot of the things that Trump was accused of faking also fall into that category: many of the outrageous things he said had a grain of truth at the bottom of them, and to ignore that and not to dive into that grain and say This bit’s right, this bit’s wrong is to play into his hands.

The value of news and the integrity of journalists is under attack and that only suits those who are making things up. But we are all still learning, and we are learning about all these new tools, like Facebook edit history.

We are in transition from an old media world to a new media world, and people are making a lot of money from cutting corners. These platforms, such as Facebook and Google, who claim they are content neutral, are making a lot of money from people sharing this stuff, and our world is losing a lot of money, by employing journalists and wading into try to sort the wheat from the chafe.

I was on a panel with Facebook in Brussels, and they were getting a lot of flak from MEPs about fake news. Effectively what they were saying is Those guys over there are telling us it’s a bit dodgy, but we’re not going to call it a lie. We’re not going to take it down until those guys over there say it’s fake, and then we might put a little statement on it. That’s not good enough.

Paradoxically, it is a great time to be working for traditional media because our value has gone up enormously in recent months. Broadsheet papers have seen massive circulation gains both on and offline.

Communications professionals need to up their game in this fragmented media world. When spin became a term of abuse in the 1990s, you saw parties setting up rapid rebuttal units. The response timings are now minutes or hours, not days, and they need to show their workings. I think all companies need rapid rebuttal units, where they can link to videos or witness statements.

Nick Barron, managing director, Edelman UK
The danger is that the conversation around fake news undermines all news. When people hear ‘fake news’, they start to think all news is untrustworthy and that includes mainstream media. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in mainline media has gone down, while trust in online media, which is typically the source of much of this fake news, has gone up. The public does not see online only fake news sites as the problem, they see all media as the problem.

We are in a narrative-driven world, not a fact-driven world, and that is true, not just of the audiences we care about – the public, and their willingness to believe in the rebuttals of an organisation like Direct Line, but it is also true of many journalists. One of the problems is that there are a lot of ideologues now in the media, who produce click bait articles which are written to reinforce a narrative rather than to relay any facts. That is as true on the left as it is on the right.  

There are new tools but these are not new problems. We need to stop blaming new platforms. We need to make sure we are above reproach. Brands like Direct Line cannot go out and make false statements or claims, that is why it is asymmetric warfare between companies and protestors. They cannot publish fake news, protestors can, and that is why journalists have to err on the side of diligence.

The problem is not the source [such as Moldovan websites], the problem is us. People don’t care if it is true or not. People quite happily admit to sharing news, knowing it to be fake or suspecting it to be fake, because it reinforces their views.

Fake news, in terms of its impact on corporate reputation, is a relatively small part of the challenge. More generally, it is campaign groups, activists or the media with a great story, and, in all those cases, companies need to move faster. They are too bureaucratic.

We spend too much time analysing the players on the board, rather than analysing the issues and the facts. If you don’t believe the facts you have been given, then you need to interrogate them rather than the motivation of the person who supplied them. We trust people like ourselves, which means we create echo chambers, rather than saying Hang on, just cause someone isn’t like me, and doesn’t share my views, they might be telling the truth.

I don’t think there is enough self-reflection from the media when they have got things wrong. We all make mistakes. I think companies are getting better at admitting when they have made mistakes. And PR people need to be the same.