What can local authorities do to tackle fake news?

This is a repost of an editorial in Public Sector Executive by Stephen Canning which you can read here

Fake news is a much more complex universe than we sometimes like to pretend. It covers far more than just simply false stories and can include stories that have small nuggets of facts; stories where parts are deliberately or accidentally omitted; where the facts are not easily verifiable; or even stories where apologies, denials or context are removed.

Fake news is not new. In 1688, England’s Privy Council issued a proclamation that prohibited spreading false information which undermined the realm and since the advent of warfare undermining the confidence of a foes population has been a standard tactic. Modern technology however has turbocharged the ability to spread misinformation and the damage it can do. More worryingly it has made it far easier for unwitting and accidental sharing of fake news.

Fake news can have huge consequences. In 2016 McDonalds faced a global boycott after an entirely false story went viral over its use of ground worm filler in its burgers. As we enter the vaccination phase of the Covid-19 pandemic confidence in public health messaging is more important than ever and our institutions need to equipped to combat it.

The risk of fake news expands far beyond the current pandemic as well – from risks to community cohesion from misinformation targeted at minority groups to damage that can be caused to confidence in local authorities from misrepresentations of their work.

Local authorities need to be equipped and prepared to combat fake news and one important step they should begin with is establishing a clearly marked, and credible, single source of truth.

This should begin with the organisation’s website having a clear and easily accessible page of announcements but also extend across all the major social networks.

They also need to be prepared to directly address misleading stories which may be circulating online. To do this, local authority communication teams must be trained and equipped at how to identify emerging sources of misinformation. Political leadership of councils need to accept the responsibility of publicly tackling fake news, however uncomfortable it may be to do so.

One of the ways fake news can emerge is when the truth is complicated, or difficult to find, and as such aiming at simplifying all the local authorities messaging and ensuring there is clarity in everything shared is vital.

We are all aware that the public sector can produce near limitless amounts of data. Every piece of this information that is shared in the public domain without context or explanation is a risk. Everyone working within local authorities need to be aware of how the information they produce, and which rightly the public can access, will be viewed if seen without context or explanation.

Most importantly is to remember that fake news is not something necessarily spread by bad actors. As wonderful as Little Biggleswade Parish Council is, it’s probably not on the Kremlin’s target list. The real risk of fake news comes from your well-meaning residents who due to a lack of clarity or simple access to information have become scared and, as we can empathise with, want to warn others.

As with so many issues in local authorities once again the answer is – keep things clear and simple.