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NEWS FLASH: Fake news at the Parish pump… and what comms and PR people need to do about it

You need to think about fake news.

Not the click-bait churned out by Moldovan teenagers in their bedrooms but the stuff on your neighbourhood Facebook group or page and newspaper comments page.

Around the village, estate, town or city where you live and work there are scores of groups and pages. On the internet, it’s often where people hang out. Hyperlocal blogs have been hailed as the new frontier. True, there are some cracking ones.  But it is to Facebook groups where a huge chunk of audience has gone. Almost unnoticed.

Look for stats on groups online and you are struggling. Why? Because Facebook would like to direct you to the highly monetised Facebook pages where there is an abundance of data. Look for data on groups?

So,you’ll have to go digging yourself.

Search your own groups

It’s simple. Go to Facebook. Search for a place. Search again in groups. Have a search ion pages too. A recent project at an urban borough found more than 3,000 pages and groups searching by town and community. Some had only one person. Others had 15,000.

Run your own search. You’ll be amazed. Seriously.

Facebook pages and newspaper comments

And let’s not forget that newspaper comment boxes are there and the public actions very often have thriving Facebook pages too. Let’s be honest, often there is a whiff of mob rule on them and caution is advised.

But you need to engage 

If newspaper comment boxes are a bridge to far I think we should be starting with Facebook groups. I’ve talked about the need to engage on them before. It’s a simple premise. Go to where the eyeballs are. If they are talking about you, go there.

Some of it is true. Some of it is false.

Time after time these past few months I’ve reached the same conclusion. The fact that the public sector is not by and large engaging in these places is deeply corrosive. The fact that some organisations are starting to is a useful step.

Fake news ‘be very, very, very worried.’

This isn’t a new thing. Rumour and misinformation have been going on since the days of cave drawings. Globally, the issue is massive. At News Rewired in London last week journalism academic Claire Wardle told us to be ‘very, very, very worried.’

The ability to fake a photograph is a given, she says. Making fake images go viral is easy. But faking video? Dear God. That’s now here.

Why is this particularly worrying? Because as Wardle says, we have learned to be sceptical about words. We are far less sceptical about images and are hugely trusting about video. She argues that we need to have the same scepticism about our emotional response as we do in other areas of our life.

As the Edelman Trust Barometer says, we are far more trusting of ‘people like us’ and will take on what they say or our Facebook friends say than a chief executive.

Types of Parish pump fake news

Here’s two types to look at.

Misinformation. It’s well intentioned but wrong. Back when I was in Walsall, a Muslim girl tweeted that she’d heard a Muslim boy had been stabbed by an EDL-sympathising Sikh gang. It was wrong. A West Midlands Police Deputy Chief Constable was quick to state there had been no reports.

Or it’s the rumour that polling stations were closed early in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Or that you need to use a pen rather than a pencil to vote.

Disinformation. It’s wrong and it’s circulated knowing that it’s wrong. That’s the malicious council-bating. Like the humorous but entirely false story of the car park attendant at Bristol Zoo. Or the photoshopped shark in the floods.

There’s a whole sub-area of family court driven disinformation. The false claim of a child abduction in Surrey that from time-to-time re-emerges. This isn’t unique.

So, is your Facebook group filled with ‘fake news’?

No. Damage isn’t the prime reason they are there. For the most part Facebook groups are community minded and more interested in people find a plumber or posting the picture of the lovely sunset. They are an excellent opportunity for you to engage with real people.

Can the Parish Facebook group be more dangerous than a national far right news site? Not on it’s own, no. But in that community? I’d argue a rogue post has huge potential to cause you damage in that community.

I’ve heard the argument, well made by Euan Semple, that there is a volume control on the mob and we should avoid it. I can sympathise with that. But I don’t think the public sector has that luxury anymore.

If conversations are taking place in dark corners on the web,

So how to engage?

Engaging on Facebook groups

  1. Join groups with your own profile as yourself.
  2. Approach admins from your own profile and ask politely if they can post your engaging sharable content things for you. Make the content you are asking relevant. A history event to entice a group interested in local history, for example.
  3. Build your relationships with the admin and the people on the group too.
  4. Remember you are representing your organisation.
  5. You don’t have to engage with every online conversation.

Engaging on Facebook pages

  1. You can comment on Facebook pages as your own Facebook page.

Engaging on online newspaper comment boxes

  1. Add comments as a named individual. Be human. Signpost. Add a link.

Look, none of this is easy. Some of it you may balk at. But it needs to be done.

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