In the Circle

Fake News and Advocacy: How to Keep it Real

We have all read about the impact that “fake news” may have had in the 2016 election. But the truth is that we don’t have to look far to see the impact internet fakery has had on our own lives. Most of us have had the solitary experience of being shown a story or a photo and saying, “is that real?”

It begs an important question: In an age where “phony” is a universal part of online life, how do organizations ensure their legislative campaigns deliver high-quality communication and garner trust from the online public? How do we combat the cynicism that fake news has wrought and avoid being tarred with the fake news label so we can change hearts and minds?

The answer is to understand how the game is played and then to keep campaigns very, very real. Here are some tips.

Understand the Game

Fake news is just that: deliberate fakery committed by unscrupulous operators. No legitimate news outlet deliberately engages in disseminating fake news. They can and do make mistakes, sometimes even big ones. But they will never deliberately publish or air something they know to be false. Whether or not you like their stories and their angles, you can trust that The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, CQ, Roll Call, and other well-known outlets are aiming to get it right. And most try reasonably hard.

Fake news, by contrast, is generated by people and organizations that have nothing to do with journalism. Instead, they are looking to drive internet traffic to make money on advertising. In some cases, they may be looking for political gain. Whatever the situation, if a story has a loud headline and a plausible premise—true or not—people will read it. The viral effect of sharing fake content has the potential of influencing thought and opinion among ideological cohorts. Those readers can get into large numbers quickly, and that can be profitable. The people and organizations that are willing to produce lies in order to draw those readers are the ones creating fake news.

Keep Your Campaigns Real

That’s not a game that any legitimate advocacy organization plays. The best path for advocacy organizations is to stick closely to the truth and avoid anything tainted by fake news, or even flimsy sourcing. In short, the best defense is to play it absolutely straight.

How do you do that? Start by thinking about standards. Tell your story citing only trusted sources. When you cite or forward news stories, make sure they are produced by well-known and trustworthy news organizations. For example, if you are providing election analysis this year, VoteWatch 2018 is a perfect tool to reach for. The analysis is provided by The Cook Political Report, a source that is well-known and trusted in all quarters. Also, if we are honest, many advocacy campaigns—perhaps too many—make use of hyperbole. We can tone that down. Have some internal talks and set some policies so the entire communications team understands the tone and the rules.

One important note: This does not mean we should be dull. On the contrary, that is a major sin in the advocacy game. Passionate, clever and engaging content is required. Subject lines and headlines should grab people and compel them to read. Just keep things well-sourced and truthful.

Grow Your Audience with Great Content and Consistent Communication

Your organization’s audience, it’s true audience, is made up of people who have a legitimate interest in your issues. They care because those issues are relevant to their lives, and they will act accordingly. They will read what you send them. If you nurture that relationship, many will do what you ask of them. That can only be gained by seeking people who have a legitimate interest in your issues and sharing information that is truthful, relevant, timely and useful. Offer them great content on issues they care about and your audience will grow.

The rise of fake news has not increased the burden on advocacy organizations. Rather, it has highlighted the burden they have always carried. We must ensure that our information is truthful, and yet presented in a compelling way. We must grow our audience, but do so by attracting those with a legitimate or potential interest in our issue. The tools to conduct this type of advocacy have never been more powerful—and the responsibility has never been greater.