A great deal has been said and written about fake news, and not a day goes by without the term popping up one way or another. But the phenomenon is as old as the hills, so why is it currently attracting so much attention? And how can you avoid fake news putting your company in a bad light? Kris Poté, Vice President of Marketing & Communication at Capgemini, shares his view on the world of facts, ‘alternative facts’ and fiction.
Do you have your own definition of the fake news phenomenon?
I do, but the question is whether one’s own definition is sufficient. I believe that fake news is a technique for making announcements that are not accurate and that are designed to manipulate, in the guise of neutral reporting. It becomes dangerous when untruths are used as a communication technique to convince people of something. And that is a threat to the media, to journalism and even to society itself.
In the United States, fake news has been a hot topic since the elections. Are things different in Europe?
In America, the term fake news is used in a number of different ways. Over there, something is often proclaimed ‘fake news’ when it comes from a medium that is inclined to speak out against your cause, and some TV channels are regularly accused of this. But in my opinion, that is not really ‘fake news’, because its intention is not to mislead. It is also true that some things are declared ‘fake news’ when they are clearly nothing of the sort. You can present things in various different ways without tampering with the facts, while implicitly expressing an opinion. If I say ‘Trump won the American presidential elections’ or ‘Trump had less votes than Clinton in the presidential elections’, then both of these things are facts. The second statement may give the impression that I am more of a Clinton fan than a Trump fan. But that doesn’t make it fake news.
Does fake news mainly occur in politics?
No, not at all. The example I just used was political, but there are certainly commercial examples too. In France, everyone is familiar with Carambar sweets, which are known for the corny jokes printed on their wrappers. At a certain point, the company put out the ‘news’ that it was going to stop printing the jokes. The response was a huge number of reactions from people who wanted the jokes to stay because they were part of what gave the sweets their identity. The whole thing was nothing more than an advertising stunt.
So sales, marketing and politics all make use of fake news, with the aim of proving that they have a monopoly on the truth. However the thing that disturbs me most is that fake news is being used more and more often by communications professionals as a communications tool. There is already a surfeit of information in the media and on social media, so if you start spreading messages designed to mislead readers as well…. It doesn’t seem to bode well; I’d even describe it as a false tool for communications specialists. And that’s before I’ve even got started on the ethical objections.
You might ask what the difference is between fake news and propaganda. What do you think?
In itself, propaganda is a well-known form of reporting within the field of communications. The point is that this kind of reporting is designed to influence and is specific to dictatorial regimes.
Do you think the media presents news differently in order to get past Facebook’s algorithms?
It’s possible, but that isn’t a problem in itself. It’s okay to present things in a different way, and everyone has their own angle. Take global warming: Greenpeace and Total will each present or explain it in a different way. It’s only when you truly start misleading and no longer comply with ethical standards that you are doing something wrong, because it is never the intention of journalism or communication to present things incorrectly.
The mass of information in the media and on social media makes it hard for the average citizen to pick out the facts or the truth from the vast tangle of information available. Every journalist, blogger or communications expert bears a heavy responsibility for preserving the facts as they are. Everyone will interpret the facts in a different way, but a fact is and remains a fact. Fake news can never be the basis for a communications professional, journalist or blogger.
Is fake news a Western phenomenon?
Absolutely, because it goes hand in hand with a kind of freedom of expression. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a consensus in the Western world that everyone is entitled to express their opinion, even if we or the general public do not share it. This has given fake news the oxygen it needs to exist. When this freedom is not there, in dictatorships, there is only propaganda. Everything else is censored because the opinion of the regime is the only authentic “truth”.
What can you do as a consumer to distinguish fake news from “real news”?
It is an inherent part of being human that we can be influenced, but we don’t have to be journalists to defend ourselves against fake news. I would recommend two things: read attentively so that you don’t miss any subtleties, and use your critical faculties. That second point seems to me to be very important for the future; we need to be doing this from an early age. We need to be a bit less superficial; approaching things critically and with a good dose of common sense will get us a long way.
How do you protect yourself as a company against fake news?
My key tip is this: if you don’t want to be a victim, then don’t start doing it yourself. The temptation is sometimes great: you want to do something unique, pull a stunt, but that is the fastest way to become a victim. Every company has a deontological or ethical code, and Capgemini is no exception. So apply that code and do not mislead your customers, partners and staff. If your business communication is always credible, then the consumer will also perceive you as a serious and sincere company. It takes years to build up that kind of reputation and it can be destroyed very quickly, so please do not succumb to temptation. Stay credible, and then the consumer will also believe your communication. And don’t forget: these days there are even apps that can detect fake news. KBC has one, by the way, and after a lengthy test period, it seems to be working satisfactorily.
Has fake news always been around?
Of course! It seems bizarre to me that fake news has now been chosen as the international word of the year. At the end of the 19th century, it was mentioned explicitly in newspaper cartoons in the United States, and there was even talk of fake news in classical antiquity. Cleopatra is a good example. She spread the rumour that she had committed suicide, with the aim of inducing her lover to do the same. And he actually went ahead and did it! So there is no doubt that fake news has always been around: it’s not the word of the year, but the word of many centuries.
What does press freedom mean when the internet is ruled by a small number of tech firms?
We could ask ourselves whether certain tech firms should have to play by the same rules that normal media companies do. Take the GDPR, the right of reply, the right to be forgotten, slander and defamation, false allegations, racism, you name it. Big tech firms do not have the same status as media companies or publishers, but do partially fulfil the same role. They should comply with the same ethical codes and the same laws. These rules are far more flexible in the US. I really do wonder what difference there now is between a media company and certain tech firms. We have certainly not seen the end of the algorithms that are being invented by the whizz-kids behind Facebook and Google, for example. Their power in the media is inevitably going to grow and grow.