Fake news has been around longer than you think

In 1769, John Adams wrote in his diary that he’d spent the evening in “a curious employment. Cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, etc. — working the political engine!”

Adams along with his cousin, Sam, and other Boston patriots were planting false and exaggerated stories to undermine British authority in Massachusetts. In other words, fake news. Just in case you thought this was a recent phenomenon practiced by scoundrels, not an ancient art embraced by one of our revered founding fathers.

To be sure, fake news isn’t new. Indeed, it’s another indicator that we’re reliving the “yellow journalism” era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when printing presses and paper suddenly were cheap, and newspapers were springing up everywhere, leading to intense competition for attention that prompted sensational and even made-up stories. (Sound familiar?)

But it’s little solace that fake news is old news if you’re caught up in a fake news story, with your reputation on the line. Our principles for effective use of social media include dealing with false and misleading reports. But the first rule we’ll suggest is don’t fall in love with the rules, because they’re changing constantly.

Consider that one of the most infamous episodes of a false report gaining huge traction during the presidential campaign involved a single tweet from a man who posted pictures of buses and said they were evidence of paid protesters being bused to demonstrations against Donald Trump. They weren’t. The buses were for attendees of a nearby software conference.

Nevertheless, that post was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook, as The New York Times’ Sapna Maheshwari outlined in the excellent “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.”

For people who study reputation management on social media, the twist was this: The original tweeter had 40 followers. And one of the “rules” has been to avoid adding fuel to the fire by reacting to a critic with few followers.

The bus tweet is an extreme example, as it came amid the most hyper-charged national election in memory. It’s also, though, a reminder that the potential damage from a social media post cannot be judged by the initial audience.

Here are some other guidelines:
1. Use social media before the crisis. Know where your customers and key stakeholders are on social media and engage them. Don’t wait until you’re under attack to “discover” Facebook and Twitter.
2. Evaluate the threat. Where and how did it start? Who’s the source? How influential is the source? (But remember, as with the bus tweet, influence can be earned online in seconds.)
3. Don’t let mistakes or factual misstatements about you or your organization persist online.
4. When it’s time to respond, do so as quickly as possible. An honest, factual, sincere response is more important than a perfectly polished response. Get in the game.
5. Most of all, be transparent, tell the truth and back up your words with actions.

Thomas Fladung is vice president at Hennes Communications