Fake news isn’t new

When Donald Trump exclaimed “You are fake news!” to CNN’s Jim Acosta during his first press conference as president-elect, the popularity of the phrase erupted. But it is ironic that “fake news” is only now an issue in the U.S.: It has existed quite openly in many Asian countries for decades under the name of “propaganda.”

In China, the government department responsible is 中共中央宣传部, which is commonly translated as the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China. In countries like Russia and Vietnam, these propaganda departments are equally open in admitting their role is to sway public and international opinion in favor of their policies. This can include censorship of dissenting opinions or suppression of entire communications platforms to actively cultivate views that favor the government.

When governments tighten their grip over the press, less independent investigative journalism occurs, which dissolves trust among the public. During the Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, mainstream conservative media outlets parroted government announcements that victims were rescued, which ultimately turned out to be false. Due to these false reports the phrase “기레기 (trash journalist)” was coined to show the public’s anger and distrust of the media.

China’s Propaganda Department first started using the term “fake news” in 2013 in an aggressive effort to crack down on rumors and thinly sourced reports that were contributing to social instability. Hundreds of people were jailed in China for online rumors they created that were visited by over 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times.

Role reversal

Journalist Will Ford, writing in Huffington Post, notes that there’s a common misperception in the U.S. that because China has an authoritarian government, its citizens are all brainwashed. But instead Chinese consumers grow up learning to trust independent internet content over official state sources, about which they are skeptical. 

Ford quotes Orion Lewis, a Middlebury College professor who studies China’s brand of authoritarian media, as saying, “There’s a pretty long literature that [suggests] citizens are pretty savvy about seeing and understanding the existence of propaganda and reading between the lines, particularly if you know it exists.”

It can be said that social media is causing China to be more like the U.S., and vice versa. The Chinese are skeptical of state-run outlets and have become more free-thinking. Consumers turn to social media to find unfiltered news, even if the source may be questionable, because they don’t trust the tightly controlled media.

Meanwhile in the U.S., where a free press has long thrived, consumers seem unwilling to recognize bias or unable to separate fact from fiction, making them more susceptible to “fake news” on their social media feeds than their Chinese counterparts.

Finding solutions

Now that we know propaganda and “fake news” exist, what can we do about it? 

New regulations in China have pushed the social media owners to regulate and validate content published on their platforms. In June, WeChat launched several mini-programs to verify the posts through partnerships with authorized organizations, including police stations, state-owned press, doctors, scientific organizations and other credible sources. Other countries have left solutions to entrepreneurs and social communities to avoid perceived conflicts over freedom of expression and speech. For example, in India, to help stop the widespread of false information, entrepreneurs have created fact-checking websites to which consumers can send articles for a team of researchers to verify or discredit. Similarly, Google and Facebook have launched fact-checking functions through partnerships with third-party websites. 

In addition to expecting users to be more discerning and active in reporting “fake news,” technological innovation is needed to help prevent its spread. Both Facebook and Google indicate they are looking at ways to improve and optimize algorithms that recognize false information, an effort to curtail the mass publication of “fake news” online.

For our part, PR practitioners must create qualified content that is credible, useful and matches people’s interests. We must engage users through legitimate platforms to generate organic shares and increased WOM (word-of-mouth). And we must be sensitive about the emerging new media to make quick adjustments in media strategy.

News organizations must restore their own credibility by finding new ways to listen and engage with their audiences, rather than just telling people what to think. By using technology, the news media can create a fuller portrait of the world and help consumers figure things out independently. They can teach people the skills necessary to access, analyze and evaluate media content. And they must above all produce quality content consumers need, want and trust.

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