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In the digital age, information is everywhere. At the click of a button a message can travel across oceans in the time it takes to blink. For the large part, it’s an incredible testament to human invention. But for some part, as with the spread of destructive fake news, it reveals our ugly side.

In the time of COVID 19, fake news is especially destructive when it encourages methods of virus prevention that are untrue. And while most fake news regarding the coronavirus does not directly impact businesses, there have been plenty of instances where fake news regarding the virus have resulted in damages and losses:

Fake News Causing Supply Shortages

When South Africa was about to enter its lockdown at the end of March, we had already received reports of stockpiling taking place in other countries. Soon South African supermarkets also saw shortages of items like toilet paper and disinfectants. This caused supply shortages, resulting in empty racks in the stores.

So, when a WhatsApp message attributed to Checkers was busy spreading in May, the Shoprite group had to act quickly to let consumers know that the claim was not true that “sugar, fish oil, rice, flour and soap powder” were facing a scarcity issue.

Fake News Impersonating Real News

While social media is a great tool to stay connected, it is also a conduit for fake news centred on trending topics. During the early development of the pandemic, sources impersonating well-known media outlets revelled in the panic that ensued by publishing false information regarding the spread of COVID-19. The news agencies that were being impersonated had to act quickly to quash the spread of misinformation and limit the disreputation caused.

Fake News Leading to Arson

As COVID-19 has been spreading this year, so too has 5G technology. This has led to countless rumours that 5G signals cause COVID-19. There is, however, no evidence that supports the claim. Not only is it scientifically impossible for radio waves to transmit a biological virus, but it is also clear that the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in places where 5G technology is absent.

For telecommunication companies implementing 5G technologies across the country, the spread of misinformation can cause great damage. Not only can the spread of misinformation lead to decreased sales of devices that use 5G technology, but there have also been instances where misinformed people have set 5G towers alight.

These are but some of the many instances where fake news had adverse effects. Since panic is heightened during a pandemic, misinformation can spread even faster than it usually does. Something as simple as a false report of a COVID-19 case at your place of business can be extremely damaging.

Apart from the global COVID-19 pandemic, there are many other instances where fake news can damage a business. While most of the fake news in the digital universe is used to procure clicks and ad-revenue, fake news can also be fabricated to cause defamation, damage to brands, competitive sabotage, loss of customers, etc.

Because of the reputational and financial damage that fake news can cause, it is paramount to respond to fake news swiftly and decisively. Unfortunately, though, many businesses are not geared to tackle the news that might affect them. For this reason, an action plan in the form of a rapid-response protocol is needed.

Rapid-response protocol

  • Identify the threat

Before you respond to fake news, make sure that you know what false claims are being made. Although this step might seem obvious, it is crucial that your response is formulated in relation to the misinformation being spread and not as a result of hearsay or rumours.

  • Evaluate the level of the threat

Not all fake news will require a response. Consider what the impact the false news has (or can have) on your business. Does it relate to your business, a product/service being sold, or is it a fake news article with a more general scope? Only prepare to comment on fake news that might harm your business.

  • Identify the truth

Once you know what false claims are being made, compare what you know to be false with what you know to be true. Gather info that will help you formulate your response. If possible, it will be good to support your claims with concrete information that verifies the truth.

  • Update all your online presences

Although there may be people spreading fake news that impacts your business, it doesn’t mean that everyone will be as naïve to believe the news without verifying it. Your online presence (specifically your social media pages and website) is the most reliable source of public information. Make sure to debunk the fake news where people will be searching for your response.

  • Formulate a press statement/release

Write a release that both debunks the fake news and that expresses the reality of the issue put in question by the fake news.

  • Send out the press statement to all relevant sources

Prepare a list of media contacts ready to send your statement to. This list should also specifically include any media outlets in your niche. By maximising the availability of a true statement, it minimises damage caused by fake news and discourages people from spreading false news.

  • If possible, find the source of the fake news

If you can find the originator of the fake news, it is pertinent to have them retract the fake news and publish the truth. If the fake news was published on social media, you could report both the fake news post and the account from which the fake news came. Often, cutting fake news off at the source dramatically limits its spread.

In the digital age, with the exponential growth of digital information, preparing a response protocol for threats from fake news articles is critical. Make sure that your business is educated in identifying fake news and knowing what to do when it may cause harm.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).

Reference list:

  • https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/15/204108.html
  • https://www.businessinsider.co.za/here-is-what-you-need-to-know-about-5g-in-sa-2020-5
  • https://www.enca.com/south-africa/sa-news-organisations-targeted-in-fake-twitter-accounts
  • Government Gazette Vol 657, No. 43107, 18 March 2020
  • https://www.shopriteholdings.co.za/articles/Newsroom/2020/whatsapp-message-claiming-to-be-from-checkers-is-fake-news.html

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

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