This is a guest post from Mary Poliakova, PR consultant and co-founder of Drofa Comms.
PR and media professionals know the power of social media, with 93% of public relations professionals following journalists on social platforms and 83% of reporters leveraging Twitter for their professional work.
While social networks are accessible to everyone, they inspire confidence by offering a fast and straightforward channel of communication. However, there is also a flip side of the coin. Exploiting social media’s vulnerabilities can lead to massive disinformation campaigns, the rapid spread of fake news, as well as other dangerous trends.
Social Media’s role in an individual’s life
Before we dive deep into social media’s risks, it’s important to revisit its role in our lives and its four primary functions.
The first is the mass media function, which includes generating personalized newsfeeds through sophisticated algorithms. Social media is also a news-producing machine that serves as an information source for many.
Secondly, it is a powerful channel that can greatly influence different aspects of our lives. This aspect of social media is what empowers influencers, celebrities, and other well-known people with increased authority over financial markets and the economy. There are many examples of this phenomenon – from the relationship between Donald Trump’s Twitter-heavy days and stock price falls during his presidency to Elon Musk’s market manipulation allegations.
Thirdly, it is a huge book of reviews and suggestions. Thanks to feedback and suggestion functions, users are increasingly turning social media platforms into review platforms of different services, companies, websites, and more. In fact, while 51% of a survey’s respondents stated they trust other consumers more than they do brands, another 40% feel that an influencer’s promotional activity is the most likely way to convince them to purchase a product.
As the fourth function, social media is a communication channel with “powers that be,” as it is the easiest way to stay in touch with your favorite bands, artists, or political figures. Following a person’s pages and commenting on their posts makes you feel connected to someone who doesn’t even know about your existence. There is even a term for these one-way friendships with famous people called parasocial relationships.
Fake news and the algorithm dilemma
Over the 20 years I’ve spent in journalism and PR, I have learned that the power of media can be misused to manipulate others and change public opinion in important matters. Considering the easy accessibility of social media and the massive activity among its use cases, these dangers are even more substantial than for traditional media.
Fake news is a perfect example in this field. From the infamous US presidential election of 2016 and the UK’s Brexit referendum to COVID vaccine hoaxes, false and misleading information can spread like wildfire on social media platforms. And fake news continues circulating among users even in the current geopolitical turmoil.
Misleading information remains a problem despite tech companies like Meta‘s and Google‘s unsuccessful attempts to tackle this challenge. Below, you can find one of Elon Musk’s first statements after becoming Twitter’s new CEO and owner after buying the company for $44 billion. Even after 16 years of market history, combating the spread of fake news remains a core issue of the social media platform.
At the same time, the social media landscape has an algorithm dilemma. While platforms leverage state-of-the-art AI and ML for moderation and recommendation, bad actors can exploit their designs to promote extremist content or amplify one political side at the expense of its opponents.
PR and marketing specialists know firsthand how to manipulate the audience’s minds – targeted ads are a perfect example of that. And this issue is so substantial that many countries have launched their own initiatives to combat manipulation on social media (the EU has proposed one of the most advanced legislations in this field).
Thus, anyone with the necessary resources can control public consciousness, influencing consumer demand. And social media is a massive channel for manipulating consumers’ opinions. But what can be done about it? And who is responsible?
It is our job to combat misinformation
First of all, the one who stands behind a social network is responsible for its operation and all the problems and challenges taking place on the platform. Mark Zuckerberg’s opening statement before a joint Senate Committee in April 2018 serves as an excellent example.
That said, I firmly believe that journalists and PR professionals should also bear responsibility. Simply put, this means that it’s also our job to combat misinformation and fake news in the digital realm.
Every social network has its own rules. Now, the task of Public Relations professionals and journalists is to raise the issue of verification and fact-checking. As social networks are more than a cool PR tool, we need to develop uniform rules and norms.
As the collective consciousness is very easy to be manipulated, it is a task with a huge responsibility. Thus, we must dedicate more time to discussing this problem within our professional community and with our speakers.
Furthermore, we must treat all information critically. Before writing a story based on a Twitter post, review who shared it, when it was published, and under what circumstances. With only a little more work, we can effectively combat fake news, minimizing the spread of misleading information.
Mary Poliakova has more than 10 years of experience executing successful PR campaigns for FinTech companies, and more than 15 years of experience as a journalist.