François de Hennin, independent risk advisor and consultant, and former global chief risk officer of GroupM tackles one of the biggest risks facing business today: managing and mitigating the risk of fake news

Though recently rebranded as fake news, the phenomenon of misinformation is as old as mankind; indeed fortunes have been made using it

For example, in the early 19th century Rothschild set up a Europe-wide network of messengers and carrier pigeon stations to gather information that could affect his investments.

He soon garnered a reputation for being first with the news. The story goes that, when the Battle of Waterloo was being fought in June 1815, other speculators watched Rothschild’s stocks in an attempt to guess who would win.

Shortly after the battle ended, and long before anyone else knew who the victor was, he began selling stocks. Everyone assumed this meant Napoleon had won and Europe was lost. Panic selling ensued. When prices crashed, Rothschild bought everything in sight and made a fortune.

Most countries have existing laws to deal with false stories and companies have used a number of instruments and techniques, like PR crisis management, to deal with them. But the internet has changed the game forever.

Internet: The game changer

With the internet, beyond the easy access to technologies to make fake news look real, everything is bigger and faster: the speed at which information is being shared, the amount of information generated and the very large number of sources.

All of this makes it difficult to monitor all news, to assess which stories are false and might create the most long-term damage and to appropriately react to those. Fake news effectively spreads like a virus, and like a virus, it is extremely difficult to eradicate totally. Nevertheless, like viruses it must be addressed and pre-empted as much as possible.

Fake news current political implications complicate the picture further. In the United States, Facebook estimates that as many as 126 million Americans (approximately half the US voting population) were exposed to fake news created by Russia during and after the 2016 US presidential election. Because of this undue influence which fake news might have on elections and on the democratic process, authorities around the world feel they must act.

For example, a Singaporean minister has just announced that new laws to regulate Singapore’s online space and tackle the spread of fake news should be introduced next year. Critics, including Google, Twitter and Facebook, argue that existing laws are sufficient to deal with fake news and that new laws could be used to curb free speech.

In any case, laws do not stop crimes, and while companies must ensure they adhere to laws, they must also go further, taking appropriate preventive measures to deal with the fake news risk.

Three is a crowd

A business can be confronted with fake news in three basic situations with different risks and solutions:

  1. Generating fake news,
  2. Channelling or spreading fake news,
  3. Being the subject/victim of fake news.

Whatever the situation, businesses should ensure first that they have appropriate online brand monitoring (particularly for B2C businesses). Secondly, social media tracking (not limited to Facebook and Twitter - this is particularly important as search engines integrate more and more user-generated content, mainly on social networks) and community management is in place.

Finally that they are able to identify opinion leaders and influencers and to anticipate bad buzz. In other words, firms must actively manage their online reputation, either in-house or through external specialists.

Misinformation training

As the agreed effective way of combating misinformation is through education and training, staff must receive proper training together with regular boosters, which should cover:

  1. How to identify fake news, i.e. how to distinguish reliable from unreliable information, and information from opinion;
  2. Escalation mechanisms when fake news is suspected;
  3. Internal processes to ensure information is checked before being used in any form of communication both internal and external;
  4. Staff obligations in regards to their presence on social media, like clearly stating when opinions are theirs and not the company’s, that company rules and values also apply outside of the office, including in relation to hate speech, defamation, the spreading of false news, confidentiality, the use of professional email addresses, etc.; also reminding them that persons who transmit a message which they know to be false might be committing an offence.

Put simply, the overall aim is to ensure that the entire business takes the fake news threat seriously and knows how to deal with it.

Let me now address each of the three situations in turn:

1. Fake news generation

Due to the speed at which information spreads, the inadvertent release of incorrect or out-of-context information may have serious consequences. Every business should, therefore, have appropriate processes in place to prevent any such mishap and to ensure the appropriate speedy reaction when an incident occurs.

Initial processes can be as simple as the ’four eyes principle’ (i.e. need for an approver before any news release), or single channel output (i.e. all information is released only by one source).

2. Fake news conduit

As all businesses use different sources in their internal and external communications, they could unwillingly channel fake news; this could affect their reputation, hence the need for training and procedures ensuring that any information is properly checked before being used.

Note also that there is a significant current debate between authorities around the world and internet giants like Facebook and Google as to whether social networks should be held responsible for inappropriate content including fake news.

3. Fake news object/victim

Appropriate social media tracking, as described earlier, is key as it allows the firm to anticipate fake news as much as possible, to react quickly and to use influencers to combat such news.

Finally, all actors in the fight against fake news must remember that a firm’s reputation, i.e. its track record of quality, trust, openness, reliability, and truthfulness, is, in the end, the best line of defence against fake news, as hopefully, people’s first reaction will be to disregard any news which contradicts their perception of a brand.