Don’t believe the hype – why charities need to join the fight against ‘fake news’

We take a look at the role of charities in combatting the epidemic of false and misleading information online that could harm their reputations and the people they’re trying to help.

Raabia Fazil | 20th Sep 19

Fake news is everywhere – from claims about how Brexit will or won’t impact us, magical cures for serious illnesses and conflicting versions of the truth on global issues, it can be a tough task to sift the truth from the lies. For the charity sector, fake news is an especially thorny issue.

This report from the IBT on the impact of fake news on the charity sector has found that noisy, multisensory online spaces full of convincing and seemingly truthful material can make it harder for charity content to stand out. It can also make charities vulnerable to fake news. This can start with a single post, but that single post can gain volume and power through shares, word of mouth or even made credible by being discussed by respected and established media outlets.

Sometimes charities can fall prey to fake news by publishing or disseminating incorrect information. Building trust in their content is crucial for charities to communicate the importance of their work, particularly with contrasting opinions and voices shaping conversations and flying around social media.

This is where consistent and distinct branding can help charities stand reliably apart from less credible sources. Fake news can jeopardise reputations and undermine trust so its critical to keep an eye on it and address it as necessary to keep your content robust, up to date and beyond criticism. Defy the haters!

With the spread of fake news has come a rise in cynicism. Being a reliable, trustworthy source is important for your charity in an atmosphere of diminishing public trust. It’s important to ensure your content cannot be shrugged off or raise eyebrows.

> See also: Campaign group takes down largest ever network of fake news


What is fake news?

The term ‘fake news’ conjures smooth operators posting polished, slick content but also panicked attempts to discredit authentic reporting. This great article from First Draft provides a helpful explanation which breaks it down into a range of content types:

– Satire or parody that could decieve the readers

– The misleading use of information to deliberately frame an individual or organisation

– Bogus connections between the headline text and content

– Content that mimicks real, genuine sources

– Real images or information but manipulated to mislead the reader

– Fabricated content that is 100% false

– Genuine content with false contextual information


Even sincerely posted content can unintentionally spread fake news and even reputable news publications can be misled. Forbes discovered that, this August, well meaning and concerned public figures shared photos appearing to show the Amazon rainforest engulfed in flames, seen by millions of us, were, crucially, not real. Long-standing claims that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the earth’s oxygen were also proven to be untrue.

With the rapid surge of fake news, the public are eager to push back against this epidemic and want social media companies to fight fake news reaching young and vulnerable people. A report by think tank Demos found that 59% of adults believe that social media content should be moderated to combat damaging material turning up in timelines.

Almost 50% of people demanding stricter regulation believe it would help reduce self-harm and suicide. Around a third believe it would help combat other mental health conditions and tackle terrorism.

In such a dubious atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, flimsy truths built on weak or stolen foundations and fake news flying all over the place, what can charities do? it’s reassuring to know that you are not alone in the quest for the diamonds of truthful content.

The BBC reports that tech giants are providing accountability to protect readers and dispel rumours, particularly around breaking the kind of echo chambers that social media can be prone to. Pages that post fake news constantly will be informed of limits on content and advertising based income.

Instagram have taken a similar approach and developed a solution based on hashtags and searches option as posts found fake by verifiers will be downgraded and become less visible. Hitting posters where it hurts in real terms of income and visibility helps to hinder confusing content designed to obfuscate online spaces and allow gatekeepers to maintain clarity.


Standing up for the truth

Along with the tech giants looming large, other organisations are emerging to help illuminate when the truth and facts become murky and obscured. Sense About Science provide accountability by challenging fake scientific claims, defending authentic research and encouraging the public to question such claims. They focus on concrete evidence to support information provided to the public.

Full Fact is the UK’s independent verification charity investigating and unpicking news items on a range of topics including the economy, health, education and law. Providing free and unbiased information, they empower all readers to question statements from public figures and organisations. Seeking to establish and uncover the facts behind all statements, they do not support any ideological goal.

We recently reported that campaign group Avaaz have discovered and dismantled a web of fake news. They advised EU elections could be hijacked through social media and found over 700 Facebook pages of content including anti-immigration bias, Holocaust denial and anti-EU opinions using fake accounts to distort facts and dupe readers.

The government is also working to protect readers and clarify waters that so often get muddied. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Minister Lord Ashton of Hyde said the government is concerned that artificial intelligence is being used to create fake news and is working with stakeholders in the UK, and globally, to combat the issue and will publish a White Paper this winter about policies to improve online safety.

> See also: Government and charities to combat AI fake news


The role of charities

Charity Digital News CEO Jonathan Chevallier commented: “the fight against fake news and misinformation is critically important as…these undermine democracy…we [the charity sector] need to work with the tech suppliers to take down such content.”

Fake news is particularly harmful for people facing uncertainty about health. Macmillan Cancer Support provide a Digital Nurse in response to a growing demand for information about cancer. They are concerned that patients are leaving appointments without the information they need and fall prey to unverified internet sites, leaving them needlessly frightened and at risk of bogus cures making such wild claims as chemotherapy is a bigger killer than cancer itself and another asserts that baking soda can cure breast cancer. The cancer support charity is also appealing for greater support for cancer patients with healthcare professionals to signpost patients to trusted sites.

Macmillan’s new Digital Nurse Specialist Ellen McPake said “As more and more people seek information about their cancer online, we want them to know that charities like Macmillan are able to offer reliable health advice.”

Just recently, fake news reared it’s ugly head in the form of an article attacking the RNLI. They have published a robust defence of overseas work online and via social media after The Times and Mail On Sunday ran stories that criticising its overseas projects while it is facing financial challenges in the UK.

What can we learn from this? By addressing each claim clearly, factually and transparently, RNLI have shown you may get knocked down but you can certainly get up again.


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