Getting to the truth of the matter on misinformation

‘The way social media platforms are designed and are growing in power is making it easier than ever before to spread misinformation like wildfire,’ believes Stefan Rollnick, head of misinformation at communications consultancy Lynn.

Stefan Rollnick, an award-winning misinformation and communication strategist, has an extensive background in politics, campaigns and social justice, beginning his career working on campaigns and communications for Progress in Westminster. As misinformation analyst for the Office of the First Minister of Wales, he supported communicators across the Welsh Government in the fight against misinformation.

Joining Lynn in 2021, Stefan has supported the PR community in Ukraine with award-winning pro-bono comms alongside his work with the Welsh Government, the NHS and the private sector. Here, Stefan shares an overview of the misinformation challenge for comms people across politics, public affairs, the media and more – and explains what the sector should be prepared for.

Have you noticed an increase in misinformation in your space over the last few years?

There’s a number of ways of measuring this, and all of them are fraught with difficulty. We’re not academics, we’re practitioners, but we can say a few things with certainty. First, the way social media platforms are designed and are growing in power is making it easier than ever before to spread misinformation like wildfire. Second, a lot of the society-wide factors that increase the spread of misinformation – uncertainty, information overload, crisis – are getting worse. And third, we’re hearing more regularly from our clients that this is an issue which is making it harder to retain their relationships with key audiences.

Are social media platforms doing enough to tackle misinformation?

I think the platforms would be the first to admit that more could be done to tackle misinformation, so that in itself isn’t particularly contentious. Again, there are policymakers and campaigners whose focus is on pressuring the platforms to act more comprehensively, and our job as practitioners is to protect our clients in the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

What additional steps should social media be taking?

We’re not in the business of making policy recommendations, but one thing is for sure: transparency is never a bad thing. Transparency about how they are making moderation decisions and transparency about how their algorithms are recommending us content is something that academic researchers have been calling for for quite some time now, and can only help us as a society get to grips with the problem.

What advice would you give to others in your sector for correcting misinformation among the general public?

There are three pieces of advice which should provide a solid foundation for any strategy to fight misinformation.

1) Just because you feel like you need to respond to something doesn’t mean that you should. Social media algorithms are designed to harness our impulses to propel content to the top of more users’ newsfeeds, so in responding to something we might just be exposing more users to it.
2) Just because something is a problem on social media, doesn’t mean it’s a problem with your audience. Social listening tools can be incredibly helpful in detecting potentially harmful information, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s reached our audience or is resonating with them.
3) Finally, it’s not all in your control. Misinformation is spreading because of forces well beyond this current moment – a changing climate, a revolutionised information environment, increasing inequality – and there’s no correction that’s going to fix all of that. By acknowledging this we can focus more of our energy on what we can control, than wasting it worrying about what we can’t.

Are there any particular areas that you feel will likely be the target of misinformation in 2023 PRs should plan for?

One advantage we have on misinformation is that it rarely falls out of the blue – it tends to spike in response to unfolding events. Extreme weather events, global conflicts and public health crises are all areas where misinformation can thrive. We’d recommend keeping an eye on countries that have elections coming up, too.

But the truth is, we know that regardless of the focus of the misinformation, the structure of it will be much the same: it will be pitting in groups against out groups, leveraging social divisions and blaming the world’s ills on a secret cabal of elites pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Does misinformation negatively impact those within the sector as well as the general public?

Absolutely. If your job is to build a relationship between the organisation you work for and your audience, then misinformation should be on your radar. Bad information has the potential to sever this relationship.

For more on misinformation and how the comms industry can help combat the issue, read this interview with Pharmica’s Carolina Goncalves for how it is impacting the pharmaceutical sector.

To help track how your message is received across the media, the political sphere and social media, try Vuelio’s monitoring services.

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