Written by Evan Nierman, Founder and CEO of Crisis Management Inc Red Banyan, which provides crisis public relations consultancy to clients around the world.
Online attacks can come out of nowhere and quickly gain momentum when the truth becomes murky and unreliable sources muddy the waters. Left unchecked, accusations rooted in lies can spread like wildfire, distorting the truth and lending undeserved credibility to the lies.
Studies have shown that even the most educated people find it difficult to tell fake online content from fact-based content because a lot of it is too complex. A Pew poll found that nearly a quarter of Americans accidentally shared a made-up news story. And our ability to tell the real from the fake is getting harder as sources get better at appearing legitimate.
Sharing fake news, even if you’re trying to point out an inaccuracy, allows the elusive narrative to sink into our consciousness. When online attacks pile up and turn into a common misconception, it’s easy for the “bad guys” to win in the internet age.
Online Collective Power
Online mobs often attack false and harmful claims. The real damage is done when these lies fluctuate and begin to spread on the Internet, gaining unfounded credibility that is difficult to eradicate. And the more people who share the lie, the more credibility you gain through collective confirmation.
Putting the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, may be difficult if not impossible, as evidenced by assertions of 2020 election fraud, fear of Covid-19 vaccines and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In all three cases, the online mob was instrumental in spreading lies that influence public opinion. Even worse, hordes of people continue to receive blatant misinformation due to this phenomenon and continue to inadvertently share disinformation.
The tightly knit online communities are then energized by their collective power to effect change, even though their claims are rooted in the foundation of lies.
It happens in a jiffy: Your brand has been taken down or your individual reputation tarnished because offensive content has turned into a story that has spiraled out of control. It doesn’t matter if the alleged scenario is suddenly true. The real damage is done if people believe an online post is true and share the lie.
More alarming, a recent study in Science A magazine about the spread of fake news on Twitter showed that fake news and rumors spread faster than the truth. The study showed that false stories about business, terrorism, war, science, technology, entertainment, and politics outperformed the truth in every subject.
so, what are you doing? A simple rule of thumb, as I’ve written about it before, is to share carefully and post with a purpose. When it comes to social media, online mobs tend to fall on the side of anger, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Protect yourself and your brand and always exercise caution. Be original and promote your product, service or image through positive and useful content. If you get negative reviews, answer them honestly and offer to make things right. If you do not agree with the criticism, explain why it is unfounded.
Online mobs move in a smear campaign mode and destroy a person’s online reputation, suitability, and good name if their version of the truth is allowed to spiral out of control. Controlling negative narration is the best way to get your message across accurately. It’s also easier to be proactive and share your message on your terms than to respond to someone else’s version of the facts.
We know that social media is something we should use with the utmost suspicion and care. Recent data scientist Frances Haugen testified before Congress that she believes Facebook chose profit over safety when it came to allowing hate speech and misinformation on its platform.
Lawmakers are again calling for reforms to regulate social media when it comes to stronger supervision, effective child protection and better controls for parents.
In general, being proactive about managing your digital footprint is your best bet when an online group group doesn’t have your best interests in mind. Never misrepresent your brand. Always state your true intentions, and be honest when negative comments appear. Dealing with negative feedback can be difficult, but in the end, you are more likely to be on top.
The hidden nature of the internet is full of cloak and dagger attacks. Be proactive with the truth, tell your story your way and don’t be afraid to face unfair negative comments. Stand up for your brand and defend it with facts so that the “bad guys” who share lies don’t win when it comes to threatening your livelihood.