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News And Views

News & Views

  • 30 November 2016
  • Steve Earl

Post-truth: the fake stakes have been raised

First we had the so-called Fake Sheikh. Then in recent weeks, much debate around Facebook and concerns being aired over the role ‘fake news’ may have played in the US Presidential Election.


And now, the apparent fake press release. The French-based company Vinci is reported to have had practically a fifth of its share value wiped out before rebounding, after what appears to have been a fake, probably malicious press release was made public ‘declaring’ financial irregularities.

It puts the notion of not believing what you read in the press into a fresh, and potentially dangerous, perspective. Throughout the rise of social media we’ve seen an ever-noisier debate on the challenge of determining the truth amidst a swirling sea of self-published information. But this is a severe new twist.

While laws obviously vary between countries and regions, the principle that is largely common is that knowingly making public false information or statements with the intention to cause personal or pecuniary harm is illegal. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, definitively fake news that spreads like wildfire on social media is tough to dampen down, given that proving any one individual acted deliberately or maliciously is practically impossible and typically futile. Cue the so-called post-truth era that has frothed much opinion of late.

But issuing a false statement or press release on apparent behalf of company or organisation breaks new ground. And when millions are lost, surely there’s a legal recourse (and, potentially, a need for improved market fact-checking too).

That markets and analysts are even still reliant on press releases as apparent statements of fact is something that may perplex some of us in the communications world, given how the press release as a news dissemination tool has been fading in significance for years.

Yet at the same time, journalists in newsrooms who have historically played the intermediary role of vetting the facts before producing their copy (albeit with the publication’s own slant on it) are under more pressure than ever to perform that role. Cutbacks have sliced through editorial staff, while commercial pressures and the immediacy of online publishing have combined to give them far less time to apply the informal truth filter than they ever had in the past. The truth in the dissemination of public information is, then, at a premium.

The Vinci falsehood incident is one that will surely prompt calls for a change of approach in better verifying corporate information. Quite what that will be is uncertain at this stage, but expect:

1.Some form of additional verification of submitted information, so that its and its sender's identity can be vetted where it's of likely material significance

2.Moves by social media networks to better govern and where deemed necessary curtail - without the ultimate ability to control - the spreading of false information online

3.Greater scrutiny by businesses and organisations of information disseminated about them online, so that where inaccuracies are circulated by whoever and for whatever purposes, they can be addressed appropriately and immediately

Fake information – and the corresponding need for accuracy - has been a problem since the dawn of time, and media development has only compounded the issue. The stakes for addressing it and pursuing the truth just got a little higher.