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During the Age of Misinformation

misinformation, fake news, prsa code of ethics

With the proliferation of social media channels, public distrust of the media, and human tendencies like confirmation bias, misinformation and disinformation continue to run rampant in our society.

As individuals whose professions revolve around the dissemination of messaging and information, what is our role in this burgeoning problem? Do we have a duty to our clients above all else, or where do we draw the line in telling the truth and “truth well told” as famously stated by advertising agency McCann?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation. Disinformation is deliberately misleading and malicious, often synonymous with propaganda. On the other hand, misinformation is fake information that is spread unintentionally and is often correlated with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the inclination to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or perspectives. For example, if I were a stout supporter of mayonnaise and I see an article highlighting all of the health benefits of mayo, I’m more likely to agree with this information and spread it via social media than I would if the article outlined how bad mayonnaise is for your well-being.

As the author of Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Annie Duke said, “You might think of yourself as updating your beliefs based on new information, but you do the opposite, altering your interpretation of that information to fit your beliefs.”

Annie purports, “What if, in addition to expressing what you believe, you also rated your level of confidence about the accuracy of your belief on a scale of zero to ten?”

It is up to us as public relations professionals to not merely accept information at face value but to do the necessary research and fact-checking to ensure that the messaging we propagate is honest, accurate, and trustworthy. At a minimum, we should be transparent in our level of confidence surrounding that data as it is always acceptable to say, “I’m not sure. Let me get back to you.”

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has a code of public relations ethics that states the core values its members should view as the roots of ethical behavior. The values are:

  • Advocacy: acting as responsible advocates for the organizations they represent.
  • Honesty: holding the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of the organizations they represent
  • Expertise: continually acquiring specialized knowledge and experience to build mutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences.
  • Independence: providing objective counsel.
  • Loyalty: being faithful to the organizations they represent while honoring an obligation to serving the public interest
  • Fairness: dealing fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the public.

I’d like to reiterate the second part of the “loyalty” value, “. . . honoring an obligation to serve the public interest.” Although we are in this client-service business with the intention of receiving financial compensation, we ultimately have a duty as public servants to spread information intending to educate rather than mislead. Suppose a client provides you with false information to publicize or, even worse, asks you to lie for them. Then, it is your duty to identify what the truth is and reject broadcasting falsehoods.

Reality is subjective. Individuals perceive the world around them based on the information that they have available to them. If someone lives their whole life with every person and news outlet telling them that an oligarchy of giant purple platypuses rules England, they would reasonably believe this to be true as it is the only perspective provided. With buzzwords like “fake news” undermining the credibility of publications and various sources, some people could have their own view of life, writing off every differing voice as untrue. “AI Versus” is an advertisement from TV Rain illustrating the difference between propaganda and news by feeding two identical bots two disparate sources of information, illuminating how your mindset can be radically different depending on what narrative you consume.

It is our responsibility to create a reality based upon truth and accuracy, not opinions and greed. We are often presented with choices on both what we say and how we say it. Although it’s typical and often expected to paint our clients in a positive light, we must be wary of toeing the line between truth and deception.

In The PR Loop, we vet all of our members and moderate our threads to ensure both a positive experience as well as a community in which our actions and communication stem from a place of honesty, ethical behavior, and validity.

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