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Localizing the fight against disinformation

While we have seen how threatening disinformation can be to democracies and elections — cue the 2016 U.S. election — little attention has been paid to preventing and combatting it in the public relations industry. Disinformation (I prefer this term over fake news) is defined as deliberately misleading or biased information. This is different from misinformation, which is erroneous information or news but without the malicious intentions of the sender. Disinformation has created what Dr. Kevin Young refers to as the colonization of doubt, or the increased mistrust in truths, which deteriorate our society and institutions, including journalism. 

Multiple entities charged with safeguarding domestic interests agree disinformation is an issue and that the U.S. is underprepared to deal with it. In a rare move, federal intelligence and security agencies, including the Department of Justice, FBI, and the National Security Agency, released a joint statement warning against the threat of “foreign malicious actors” using disinformation to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. Foreign entities are not the only concern as domestic actors, including social media networks, help spread false or misleading content in a number of ways, according to a report on safeguarding democracy. These include selling microtargeted ads that leverage user data to spread disinformation, amplifying disinformation, and allowing participation from Trojan horse outlets that conceal their agenda and mimic news outlets.

In 2020, the Institute for Public Relations released its second annual “IPR Disinformation in Society Report” based on a survey of 2,200 Americans to find out the prevalence of disinformation in the U.S., the parties most responsible for sharing disinformation, the level of trust the American public has for different information sources, and whose job it is to combat disinformation. 

Disinformation was rated by 58 percent of Americans as a “major problem” in society, more so than gun violence, crime, and drug use or abuse. Additionally, 72 percent believe disinformation is a threat to democracy, and 69 percent said it undermines the election process. However, the U.S. has placed few resources behind how to deal with disinformation compared to other social problems, such as healthcare, social security, and the economy (even though disagreements exist about the way to best deal with these issues, policies and programs do exist). 

The IPR study did find differences among respondents, and where they put the blame for disinformation, the most significant gaps are based on political affiliation. Republicans and Democrats were at opposite ends of the spectrum as to whom is responsible for spreading and combatting disinformation, as well as the sources they most trust. However, both political parties agree on one information source they both trust: local media outlets. In fact, 70 percent of Americans had “some” trust in local broadcast news and 60 percent in local newspapers, which was rated higher than friends and all other media outlets. 

But local media outlets are in trouble. Over the past 15 years, according to a 2020 report by Dr. Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina, the U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers, turning at least 1,800 communities into news deserts. Similarly, the number of ghost newspapers, or thin papers with little local news coverage, has increased. Some are consumed by larger dailies or bought by investment firms with limited local ties. 

While scholars have debated how amicable the relationship between public relations professionals and journalists is, both sides without a doubt would agree that they need each other. Local newspapers are a trusted source for combatting disinformation. 

Though companies have not spent much time combatting disinformation from an industry standpoint, they can help fight it. Companies should not invest in social media networks or news outlets that do not actively counter disinformation or avoid those that sell user data to dark sources. Companies should help fund newspapers through ads and subscriptions. Additionally, companies can support favorable legislation such as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act HR7640. The time is now for companies to take a stand against disinformation to help protect democracy and one way to do this is through supporting local journalism.

Tina McCorkindale, PhD, APR, is President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, an independent research non-profit that studies the profession of PR.