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Misinformation & Disinformation: What is it and how do you protect your brand against it?

Ryan Stephens

Jun 7, 2021

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As a result of social media, the traditional news cycle has accelerated, and now many people receive most, if not all, of their news from the major social media networks. 

This dramatic shift in consumption has increased both the speed and accessibility of information and now anyone with an internet connection has the ability to either knowingly or unknowingly spread a false narrative. As a result, misinformation, as well as disinformation, has become more prevalent—and thus needs to become more prevalent in our conversations.

In partnership with NAGC, I had the privilege of hosting a fireside chat between Ben Kessler, Head of Government Solutions at Meltwater, and Christina Nemr, Director at Park Advisors and Disinfo Cloud, to help unpack what public information and public affairs offices can and should do to protect their brands or agencies.

Table of Contents

The Difference Between Misinformation & Disinformation

Misinformation and disinformation have been discussed heavily over the last few months in connection with the U.S. election, COVID-19, and vaccines. On the surface, it seems they can be used interchangeably. 

However, Christina Nemr explained during the NAGC conference that it’s not that simple. She cautioned that while “the results and the impact of both misinformation and disinformation can be the same, the difference between the two terms actually lies in the intent.” 

The difference between the two is that misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread unintentionally while disinformation is intentionally false information that is spread, designed to manipulate emotions. Disinformation is typically designed to influence social, political, or economic outcomes, and ultimately inflict harm. This issue isn’t new, but it’s been increasing in visibility over the past few years. 

U.S. intelligence experts have verified that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the past two presidential election cycles through carefully organized disinformation campaigns across networks such as Twitter & Facebook through the Kremlin-supported Internet Research Agency.

The Increasing Challenge for Government Agencies

According to the Oxford Internet Institute, disinformation campaigns increased exponentially in 2020 vs 2019. So, where are false narratives coming from? Christina explained that this increase in activity is quite simply “because it's, unfortunately, an effective way to move an agenda forward.” This includes both state and non-state actors who have a specific goal or agenda—something Ben confirmed he’s seen in his experience.

Christina further clarified that disinformation and misinformation come up more frequently “when there is a data deficit or a data vacuum.” For example, when there is a new topic that is complex or is filled with uncertainty, people will have a number of questions and seek quick answers. Christina explained that simplistic answers to these questions can lead to conspiracy theories to help explain complex topics. 

She was also quick to point out that disinformation does not always equal a conspiracy theory, “but disinformation does strategically amplify conspiracy theories to advance an agenda.”

Ben added to Christina’s points, saying “if trusted sources do not give answers, others will.” When good questions don’t have answers and there are no experts to turn to for answers, then there’s an increased likelihood that mis/disinformation will fill the void. 

Ben explained that as a source of trustworthy information, communications and public affairs professionals can play a role in eliminating this void. 

Christina followed up on this explaining specifically how the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which sits inside of DHS, preemptively planned for harmful narratives and rumour control regarding how to vote and the security of the US election equipment. She continued that CISA proactively worked with various influencers by providing them with very detailed information about how to vote and the security of the election. This way, the factual information was able to reach a wide audience quickly and traditional media could also pick it up and rebut any disinformation that was occurring. 

Plan Ahead and Stick to the Facts

As discussed, data deficits and information gaps lend themselves to false narratives. During the panel discussion, Christina expanded upon this point by saying organizations “can help maximize resources and avoid disinformation resonance by trying to approach [the issue] in a preemptive manner.” 

One of her suggestions included monitoring social media to see what’s already being said on social media and various fringe platforms about your organizations or topics of responsibility. From there, reaching out to your target audience on their ideal platforms such as Facebook, Instagram Lives, Tik-Tok, or Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions.

Christina cautioned however that due to the speed of information these days, “you never want to be in a position where you have decided to counter a specific campaign, and you inadvertently end up adding fuel to the fire, whereas it was going to die on its own already.”

Ben strongly agreed with this assessment and added that you need to not depend upon your hunches, but actually look at data from historical patterns, to predetermined signals as to whether or not you should respond—something he encouraged organizations to do as part of their preemptive planning.

Counter the False Messages, Don’t Repeat Them

When encountering false narratives, a first instinct is typically to explain why the claim is wrong or inaccurate, but both experts cautioned against this instinct. Christina explained you don't want to debunk false claims, and by debunking them, you inadvertently repeat them. This repetition can strengthen the disinformation and give it more visibility. 

Instead, the suggested approach is to push out your own message thereby filling the data and information gaps that afforded the opportunity for the disinformation to appear in the first place. The key is to have a fact-based approach that is not designed to not insult anyone's intelligence.

Something's Afoot: Signs of Misinformation & Disinformation

Keeping eyes and ears open for misinformation and disinformation is vital for all government organizations and public information/affairs professionals. 

Ben suggested social listening queries are a good first step, but also encouraged teams to look “one layer deeper to their own internal data.” 

For example, receiving a high number of inbound inquiries on an unexpected topic or thinking about the number of corrections that you are having to issue. Ben summarized “that there is no formula that says ‘if X and Y then misinformation’ and if ‘A plus B then disinformation.’ Spotting an issue requires looking at the breadth of data that's available and coming up with enough signals that can raise a red flag.” 

Christina agreed, explaining that communicators should have a baseline understanding of their agency's presence. This way, when there’s a spike in conversations or something that doesn’t normally happen, you have a clear indicator that something is going on.

What Can You Do About Misinformation & Disinformation?

There are a number of resources out there from free tools to enterprise-level solutions that can help track, measure, and understand the impact of both misinformation & disinformation, but most importantly, agencies need to be prepared. 

That preparedness starts with understanding their organization’s baseline media presence. For example, public information officers should understand and track how many inquiries they receive on a given topic. This way, you can see if you are suddenly having to correct the record more frequently. Further, maintain a record of how frequently your agency, leadership, and topic of responsibilities are discussed across the entire media landscape—this includes traditional media, broadcast, and social media. 

This way, when there’s a spike in conversations or something doesn’t seem quite right, you can refer to your internal baseline records. 

We recommend a media monitoring solution that can track conversations across all mediums from TV, Radio, and podcasts, to online news, print, and vast social media networks, this way, you have a 360-degree view of what’s happening. 

For additional reading on dealing with an ongoing brand and reputation crisis, check out the findings of a similar panel discussion hosted in partnership with Ancestry, Edelman, HP, & Kimpton Hotels here.