It’s proven that lies spread faster than truth online.

A 2019 MIT study found false news online travels “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than truth.” According to the study, falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster than accurate information.

Clearly, false information is a serious issue on social media, where a few careless likes or reposts is all a rumor needs to go viral. Anyone (from the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company to a local city councilmember and your Uncle Fred) can have a social media presence — it’s up to them to decide to use it responsibly or not.

Dictionary.com defines misinformation as “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.” Articles from hoax or satire websites — such as The Onion — can become misinformation if readers judge it to be credible and communicate it as such. This can impact our lives, influencing everything from who we vote for to the businesses we support. It can also alter an entire business’ trajectory and, as many companies have learned the hard way, unmitigated misinformation online (even if it starts off as a joke) can have serious negative impacts.

Take these examples:

  • Murky Waters – In early 2017, a fake story began circulating online that DASANI water bottles were found contaminated with a dangerous parasite. Coca-Cola, which owns DASANI, acted fast to release a statement shortly after the story went viral: “The source of this false and inflammatory information about our brand is a hoax news website. There is no recall of DASANI being conducted in the U.S.”
  • Crash and Burn – A viral video on Twitter in 2019 depicted a self-driving Tesla crashing into a prototype robot at a convention in Las Vegas, igniting a debate regarding the safety of autonomous vehicles. The catch? Tesla did not have a self-driving vehicle at the time. Although Tesla swiftly released a statement disproving the video, the company’s stock took an immediate plunge — a troubling example of false information’s power to affect the economy.
  • Big Mac Bummer – A shocking article that more than 51,000 people viewed on Facebook in 2020 claimed human meat was found a McDonald’s factory. This is a classic example of misinformation; the satirical website Huzlers.com first shared this untrue story in 2014. Since then, it has made the rounds numerous times with unwitting social media users believing it true.

You don’t need to be Tesla or McDonald’s to be concerned about rumors about your business circulating on social media. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your business from damaging misinformation online — or defuse a developing misinformation crisis.

Monitor News and Discussion Related to Your Brand

Google Alerts is a free, time-saving tool that aggregates any new articles that include your preset keywords. It’s helpful to have a Google Alert set up for your company name, but also include important keywords, such as product names or key leadership.

Moreover, social media monitoring is time-intensive but crucial for modern businesses. There are several popular monitoring tools to keep your eye on hashtags, mentions and even tone or share of voice in the marketplace. Taking advantage of them allows businesses to quickly intervene if misleading information is discovered, correcting the source and other social media users with facts well before it turns into a bigger problem.

Prepare to Respond Quickly

As the MIT study found, false information on social media spreads like wildfire. Time is of the essence; taming a misinformation crisis requires quick and confident action — and this is exactly the situation in which you’ll be grateful for a crisis communications plan. Your company’s plan should include roles and responsibilities, what methods are used to distribute key messages and how the company will monitor public sentiment. Proactively developing a crisis communications plan before an issue arises can help companies rebound from even the most difficult situations.

Back up Your Statements with Facts and Figures

When Tesla faced the self-driving-car-mowing-down-innocent-robot fiasco, they had facts on their side. They could prove that Tesla had not developed an autonomous car, so it was easy to show people that the video was fabricated. Like Tesla, you might have the numbers or evidence already on-hand to shut down a rumor before it spreads too far.

Unfortunately, sometimes simply saying, “This is not true! Visit our website for proof!” isn’t enough. In these cases, you may share evidence from credible third-party sources, such as analyst/research firms or studies from accredited organizations to supplement your side of the story.

A Few Bonus Tips…

  • Maintain an Up-to-Date Newsroom/Blog – Your newsroom/blog is a great place to share relevant, educational and trustworthy content with stakeholders, including your customers, partners, shareholders and media. Plus, if a crisis emerges, businesses can leverage content marketing to control the narrative and keep their networks informed.
  • Showcase Your Customers’ Positive Experiences – Social proof (such as testimonials) are another effective way to build credibility and trust with your audience. A customer experience may contradict a false narrative — and it’s even more powerful coming from someone not on your payroll.
  • Regularly Engage with the Media and Other Stakeholders – Your spokespeople should be readily available and prepared to interact with the media. The better the relationship between your business and media, the more likely they’re going to turn to your spokespeople rather than unreliable sources. Additionally, train your spokespeople on how to combat misinformation, including bridging from contentious topics to key messaging.

One only needs to take a scroll through their Twitter feed to see that misinformation isn’t going away. It’s easy for well-intentioned but easily swayed social media users to get caught up in the comment section and lose sight of the truth. As a result, companies — no matter the size — should consider a misinformation crisis a credible threat. Partnering with a public relations team (and even better, one with crisis communications experience) can help your company prepare for the worst. Beyond that, a public relations agency can enhance a company’s positive reputation and foster trust among stakeholders, helping prevent mistruths from gaining traction in the first place.