I know philosophers will say, ‘whose truth?’, and that is for a different blog, but I was asked to write a blog about something I care about and want to drive change in, so for me, it has to be how we tackle misinformation and disinformation, how we combat falsehoods and how we make sure that the truth gets heard.
Simple definitions describe misinformation as the unintentional sharing of factually incorrect information without malice and disinformation as the deliberate sharing of factually incorrect information, to get people to believe something or behave in a certain way.
As well as the ‘whose truth?’ question there is also the ‘whose facts?’ question and that opens up the whole idea of trust.
It got me thinking to a scenario some 10/15 years ago when a local broadcast reporter phoned me to tell me he was running a story about one of my clients. A group he’d spoken to had told him x,y and z and he wanted a comment and was going to be running it the next day. I listened and took in the information he was sharing; this was completely contradictory to what I’d been told, the emails I’d seen and the papers I’d read. My reply was, ‘that’s not factually correct, I can send you a statement, but I’ll also send you the facts of the matter’, he was enraged and shouted, yes shouted, ‘I decide what the facts are’. Ultimately, he didn’t run the story because it turned out the ‘facts’ that I shared clearly showed that he had been misinformed (I can only guess at if this was misinformation or disinformation, but I have my view on that!) but his very strong belief that he decided what the facts were somewhat shook my world. Until that point, I had somewhat naively believed that facts were in fact, facts!
Fast forward to the past 24-months and we’ve seen misinformation shared widely on a number of topics, elections, Covid-19, vaccines and disinformation campaigns on all of those topics and more. So, what do we do? Not one of us has the time to sit and correct every piece of mis/disinformation we see (although I have to admit I do call out friends when I see they have shared things on Facebook without checking the validity of the information they have shared – yes, I am that person, and you know what? I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed by that).
I’ve done what I always do when I want to know more, I’ve read, read and read some more. My desk is full of research papers clarifying what mis/ disinformation is, papers looking at the history of mis/disinformation, what I’ve not found is anything to provided credible guidance to the PR and communication world to help people to take the best approach to tackling this. Forgive me if this exists, I’d be rather chuffed if it did, it might save me years of impending research. I’ve also listened, I’ve had calls with a number of people from academia and practice to start to gather thoughts about what can be done.
What is heartening to hear about is the number of people delving into this. The teams working together for the good of the collective. Because without being dramatic, (which I am known to be), disinformation campaigns about health could cost lives, disinformation about climate change could impact on our world and we’ve all seen where disinformation regarding politics can lead us!
We need to act, and we need to make sure that the truth gets out there.
Guest blog by steering group member and Director of Sidekick PR, Charlotte Dimond.
For your information, there is a PRCA initiative led by John Brown and with support from PRFest’s Laura Sutherland, which is looking at the role PR and communication professionals must play, right now, to tackle misinformation and the climate crisis. Watch this space!