It was about a decade ago when Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, a satirical show on Comedy Central, coined the term “truthiness” to describe a spate of prominent public figures in the news playing fast and loose with the facts… who were largely caught in their own fabrications. (See my blog from back then on Truthiness). Truthiness was defined as the feeling that something was true, despite contradictory evidence.

Compared with today’s “fake news,” the truthiness of yesteryear seems tame. Some feel, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a BBC interview, that the fake news factor could have affected the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election as the margins were “very narrow”. (Note: post-election, Google along with Facebook announced they are tweaking their ad-serving software programs to curb placing ads on fake news sites.)

The controversy over fake news in the election no doubt will go on for a while. (It’s been prevalent in some other nations’ elections as well.) But another debate that I feel we need to be having is the potentially chilling effect that fake news could have on the practice of public relations.

Consider this:

  • During the election campaign period, overseas programmers created at least 140 US political websites (mostly pro-Trump) to spread false news — not for political reasons, but to make money off the clicks, according to Buzzfeed. (Note advice about how not to get “conned” by such sites.)
  • Social media continues to grow as a dominant news distributor and was a huge factor in proliferating fake news. A Pew Research survey this year reported 62% of adults (62%) get news on social media, and 18% do so often. Two-thirds of Facebook users (66%) get news on the site, and six in 10 get news on Twitter.
  • When you add in the ability of social media algorithms to “vet” what people would rather read, as well as enable people to self-select the news and views they prefer, the task of educating the public about important issues becomes harder.
  • Despite the run-up to the Presidential election leading to “unimaginable…online readership highs” for newspapers, according to reporting by Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, newspapers actually now face another precipitous drop in ad revenues and are going through new rounds of financial restructuring and journalist layoffs — at a time when fake news demands stronger investigative reporting and fact-checking.
  • In fact, “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level …in history,” according to a September 2016 Gallup poll. Just 32% say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from the previous year.

In an opinion piece in Forbes, public relations professional Robert Wynne says we are living in a post-factual fake news world where Americans disagree on fundamental facts – he sees the end of mass media and the emergence of micro-targeting to audiences.

Frankly, in my view, the micro-targeting has been part of my firm’s client strategies since its inception to today. What’s different now are the range of quality analytics to make it happen. Our firm was founded on the central idea that specialized sector and audience knowledge is key to success. More of our clients recognize the challenges of traditional media relations and are moving to more client-driven content platforms.

How do you think the PR industry should respond? I look forward to your comments.

Kenneth MakovskyKen Makovsky is President of Makovsky and Trustee for the Institute for Public Relations. Follow him on Twitter at @3centsmak.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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