In recent days, US President-elect Donald Trump has had to battle unverified allegations which have derived from a leaked dossier created by a Washington-based opposition research firm, branding them “fake news”. Yet despite the document’s claims being wholly unverified, the story remained at the top of Facebook’s algorithm, and has led to a growing amount of media coverage clouding the public sphere.
Fake news is a collection of fabricated stories and strategic narratives which are increasingly influencing public and political discourse. With 62% of US citizens saying they get their news from Facebook, fake news poses a threat to politicians trying to influence public opinion. For example, during the 2016 US election, fake news overtook mainstream news in terms of social media engagement.
(Source: Buzzfeed (2016) Total Facebook engagements for to 20 election stories. Available from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.bxxLnNkmKn#.salzVDKP9V )
So what does this mean for modern political PR practice?
With fake news taking centre stage, it shows how social media has facilitated “Chinese whispers” of sorts, allowing people to share stories like “Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump for President”, and showing just how little “fact checking” comes in to play. Despite the impact of fake news on public action still being undetermined, it has the potential to fuel some dangerous rumours, and lead to a misinformed public and an upheaval of the current media system. If people lose their trust in all news stories and outlets as a result of constantly being bombarded with fake news, this will render earned and paid media placements pointless and valueless, as they will no longer resonate with a growingly suspicious public.
As the ever-expanding and ever-complex media system creates an obscuring trellis around key issues and demands, more and more of the public are relying on social media for news stories, and are not differentiating real news from fake news. It is therefore increasingly necessary for politicians, public figures, and organisations alike to utilise public relations in order to disseminate and distinguish the “real story”, and to protect their image.
When politicians and other public figures are being derailed constantly the rise of fake news, and an invasive and powerful media agenda trying to verify the stories, PR and spin tactics may become a necessary evil. In a media environment of accelerated information flow, political figures have less control than with older media forms. This intensification of media attention puts pressure on politicians to communicate a variety of messages quickly, and thus an increased reliance on spin is a reaction to the need to maximise electoral support, engage a wide range of publics, and connect them through an alternative media filter, allowing politicians and public figures to communicate particular messages and to break through the media monolith.
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Charlotte Goss is a 4th year CAM student at Ulster University. She can be contacted at https://uk.linkedin.com/in/charlotte-goss-b4389895, and on Twitter @CharlotteGoss94