PR fake news infodemic

“We are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.” – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, 15/03/20

Practicing responsible and effective PR in the midst of a fake news ‘infodemic’ gives a whole new meaning to that well-worn industry phrase ‘going viral’.

After all, achieving virality, in the sense of delivering must-share news and content across readers and viewers’ social networks, has been, for the best part of the last twenty years, the Holy Grail of the PR industry.

Creating that urge to share the latest product news amongst consumers or thought leadership insights amongst business chiefs is something that continues to dominate many of our professional lives.

Think back to the early noughties, to those heady days of ‘online PR’, when the idea of creating a short, punchy video that encapsulated your brand’s key message going viral was ground zero for what has now blossomed into today’s social and content marketing industry.


‘Going viral’ liberated PRs in the noughties

Back then, the democratization of information online felt like an incredibly liberating time for public relations specialists and brand marketeers, simply because we no longer felt shackled by traditional (print) editorial gatekeepers or official state or industry channels in getting clients’ messages out.

Consider also how many of today’s fastest-growing media outlets such as Buzzfeed, LADbible, Vice, Refinery29 and many others are all developing business models based on a combination of the VAD (valence-arousal-dominance) theory of content with the incredible micro-targeting power of big data.

And yet… what of the seemingly-unstoppable spread of fake news? In politics and, now, in the panic-throes of almost-hourly Covid-19 updates.

As the production and distribution of highly-engaging, micro-targeted content is revolutionizing the nature of the media landscape, and as we all in different ways seek to deal with this current ‘infodemic’, the PR industry finds itself stuck in a problem of its own making.

Largely because, in an age in which anyone can easily be equipped with the skills, tools and know-how of constructing viral news and memes, anything goes.


Crisis informatics and fighting the fake news infodemic


Nowadays, as The Observer’s John Naughton pointed out in a recent Covid-19 editorial: “Sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be.

“There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at a site. And innocently conceived jokes can trigger panic-buying.”

Interestingly, Naughton cites Kate Starbird of Washington State University, a leading expert on “crisis informatics” – the study of how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media – and suggests that we all should act to counter the spread of fake news online in very much the same way we are acting in the physical work to counteract the spread of Coronavirus.

“Whenever you’re tempted to share a dramatic snippet of ‘information’ about Covid-19 that’s just popped into your social media feed – don’t. Just say no. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be slowing the propagation of a pernicious meme.”

Perhaps this sensible piece of advice also points towards a way forward for the PR industry in the forthcoming decade.

After all, we’ve pretty much cracked the nut when it comes to creating and sharing great content. Isn’t it about time that we started to think, discuss and consider what we can all do in our daily personal and professional lives to combat the threat of fake news?

In promoting a more responsible use of social media and a sharper awareness of fake content amongst our peers, clients and the producers and readers of the media outlets that we wish to push our client’s messages through, we can all do our bit to fight the fake news ‘Infodemic’.


Adam Hartley is Head of Content at Spreckley PR in London.

Spreckley PR is an official Member of the GlobalCom PR Network.