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A Business Continuity Manager's Guide to Fake News

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol

This week Charlie discusses the ever emerging issue of 'fake news' and what impact it can have within Business Continuity.

These days, every second article, radio broadcast or TV news bulletin seems to be full of stories of fake news or about fake news. So this week, I thought we could take a look at what fake news actually is, and what we as business continuity people can do about the phenomenon.

I was brought up on a small island on the West Coast of Scotland, which at that time had a population of 100 people. The island and its happenings were very much our world, there was no internet (it’s still not great!), newspapers arrived by boat a day late, there was no TV signal and radio was 3-4 channels and not great quality. Our gossip and rumours were about ‘what was happening in the village’, ‘who said what to whom’ and the salacious gossip was about whose car was parked outside whose house on Saturday morning after the dance on a Friday night!

For most of us, our gossip horizon is not limited to our local community. My daughters, 13 and 15, talk about the latest gossip surrounding a celebrity, who they have never met, or seen, and lives on the other side of the world. Our gossip horizons, due to the internet and social media, are now worldwide.

When planning for, or managing an incident, we as business continuity people must consider that people from anywhere in the world, may have an interest in our response. This could go far beyond the people who are affected by the incident or our customers. Our brand could be getting trashed by people who don’t use our products or had never even heard of us before the incident. Even if our brand or product doesn’t have mass appeal, those within our business space will know about it and comment on the situation.

We all know that authoritarian regimes use the media to reinforce their views and make enemies of those who oppose them. We are currently seeing a rise in the murders of journalists in countries that don’t like an independent press speaking out against the regime. In democratic countries we don’t go around murdering journalists, but we do see the efforts politicians go to, to try and get the press to carry their story and paint it in a positive light. Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, with their use of spin, were arch parishioners, always trying to make a positive out of bad news.    

We know that newspapers and media outlets are not unknown to make up stories or check their facts too closely if they think the story will sell. Journalists on the whole try to produce credible stories, but once we get to the internet, anyone can produce a story and publish it anywhere from Facebook to Twitter, and people will believe it is true.

Into the heady mix of spin and false news stories, we also throw in the hoaxers and disinformation; people producing stories specifically to see if they are picked up and spread or to see if they get a reaction. People without any official connection to a political party or organisation will go to a lot of effort to produce and spread stories which will discredit those they disagree with.

So far, we as business continuity managers have had rumours or information going worldwide, effecting our brand and reputation. This may be spin, exaggeration or plain untruth, designed in such a way to damage your credibility or reputation.

Not all stories, even if they are blatantly untrue or designed to damage your organisation, will have a resonance with people and be spread. As business continuity people, we need to spot the sort of stories which could go viral and be a potential danger to our organisation. There are two particular types of stories which are likely have mass interest, ones which play to our existing prejudices and the stories we can emotionally connect to.

The Bild in Germany, a mass circulation newspaper, reported that a mob of Arab looking men had sexually assaulted women in a restaurant in Frankfurt on New Year's Eve. The report was very similar to a real event which had taken place in Cologne the previous New Year. The police, when investigating the event, found that there was no evidence and that the event had never taken place. The report was widely shared on social media and by right wing groups. It was similar to a story published in the Russian media, about a Russian-German teenager being raped by refugees, which was also untrue. This set off protests by Russian speaking Germans, and only when discussed at diplomatic level, was the story dampened down. Both stories were untrue, but those in Germany who are anti immigrant were very quick to believe them, as the stories played to their existing prejudices.

For a story to be widely shared it must also have an emotional component. Nobody will share a story where the XYZ machine had broken down. If the machine broke down leading to an incident that killed a child, the story then has an emotional component which people can relate to, and is much more likely to turn into a major reputational issue. The shooting of Cecil the Lion was worldwide news as we could relate to it.

So we know that fake news exists, but what can we do about it? From a business continuity perspective, first of all you have to understand and do an analysis of the existing prejudices for the industry or area of work. What is the public’s perception of your organisation and the sector you work in? Is an incident likely to play in to existing prejudices? You should also look at conspiracy theories associated with your industry. Could your actions during an incident seem to conform to a conspiracy theory view? Once you have done the analysis, if you have an incident you can be ready for the likely reaction and put measures in place to counter it.

During an incident, you need to look out for the emotional elements of a story, and if you find one, you need to be prepared for a much bigger impact. The third thing you need to do during an incident, or even before, is to ensure you have excellent situational awareness so you can anticipate and identify issues that may occur, before they hit the mainstream. If you can robustly counter an argument, or prove that a story is plainly wrong, you may have some chance of dampening it down before it becomes fact.

Lastly, you need to become the source of truth and establish your credibility long before any incident occurs. If you have a reputation for truthfulness in the information you put out in the media, social media or on your website, both good and bad, it is seen to be creditable, and people are more likely to believe you in an incident.

I personally think it is good news that we are talking about the phenomenon of fake news, as it raises the issue to people about the credibility of what they read and that not everything they read or watch on the internet is true. If we recognise that there will be fake news out there, sometimes purposely concocted and playing to people's existing prejudices, then we can be vigilant in identifying and countering it.

You might be interested in the following stories

Recovering Business Reputation after a Scandal

Paints a 1000 words

Gaff or Crisis

You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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