Why CFOs need to be wary of fake news

From the Pope throwing his support behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s weapon deals, to brewery billionaires turning villagers into tycoons and mourning kangaroos, the past year has been dominated by fake news. These pieces of fiction have been manipulated to look like credible journalism and as such are easily spread to susceptible audiences with an inclination towards believing the lies, often outperforming verified, mainstream articles.

In SA, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has been asked to probe the rise in fake news reports in the country's media after a covert "black ops" smear campaign was allegedly run during the elections. The Huffington Post and Radio 702, among others, have spawned enticing imitators, and social media platforms are under intense scrutiny for failing to filter out fake news and prevent the spread of hoaxes. We are said to be living in a "post-truth" era, the adjective being the Oxford Dictionary's 2016 word of the year, relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.

The scourge is not a new one by any stretch of the imagination. Long before the Internet there were local cases of news bearing falsehoods or a smattering of truth taken out of context - often with dire consequences. The Politico magazine examines a case of "fake news" in Trent, Italy, on Easter Sunday, 1475, when a Franciscan preacher gave a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had murdered a missing child, drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Passover. The Prince-Bishop of Trent responded by ordering the torture of the city's Jews - 15 were found guilty and burned at the stake.

What is motivating those behind the fake news phenomenon? It is an extremely profitable venture, with deliberately crafted social media storms driving traffic to sites and thus attracting advertisers. These sites may be set up from anywhere in the world, with Buzzfeed reporting that more than 100 pro-Trump fake news websites were being run from a Macedonian town and interviewing the teenage minds behind some of them. Bar simple monetary gain, fake news has been linked with troublemakers, trolls and those looking to advance a particular political agenda.

In this environment, it is vital that executives have an in-depth understanding of fake news, its mechanisms and the steps they can take to combat it before a crisis. Handling a storm generated by fake news will require patience, effective communication to all employees, clients and other stakeholders and the leveraging of existing media contacts. It is imperative that brands identify, distinguish, and manage real and fake news in the interests of reputation management.

In a world increasingly dominated by those holding intransigent views and multiplying platforms and technologies, the chances are that the fake news phenomenon is not going to fizzle out like a popular trend, but that the number of articles, videos and sound clips doing the rounds will proliferate.