Disinformation and ‘Fake News’

A guide to ethical communications for public relations practitioners.

By Sarah Waddington, editor, #FuturePRoof

“Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day.”

Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, February 2019

In this time of fake news and propaganda the question of ethical communication has never been more important.

The spread of disinformation may require a collective response from social media platforms, tech companies, government and the media, but we as professional communicators - and the organisations and brands we act for - are well placed to influence within our own spheres as well as to contribute to the debate.

Without stringent measures in place, professional communicators can easily find themselves unwittingly part of the issue. 

This short guide is designed to explain the threat posed by disinformation and how digital technology and social platforms (often managed by public relations professionals), play a significant role in facilitating the pollution of public discourse.

It sets out different terms to avoid the use of ‘fake news’ - a phrase that has been weaponised to undermine the news media, which works in the public interest and alongside the PR industry to hold power to account. 

It acts as a signpost to existing resources so that every professional communicator has the knowledge at their fingertips to advocate and practice ethical communications. 

As public relations professionals who help shape public narratives, we have a duty of care to ensure the veracity of everything we write and share, especially where we have access to and influence over large groups of people. 

It is imperative we have the skills necessary to deal with the issues associated with harmful and illegal content and to combat the growing threat from dark ads, deep fakes and more. 

Professional standards are an important defence against disinformation, which is being deployed to destabilise the political and social status quo.

The International Association of Business Communicators says: 

As a professional communicator, you have the potential to influence economies and affect lives. This power carries with it significant responsibilities.”

Its Code of Ethics serves as a guide to making consistent, responsible, ethical and legal choices and is worth a read.

Until – and even when - independent regulation is in place that requires tech companies (including social media platforms) to adhere to a Code of Ethics, as advocated by the DCMS in its Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report, it falls within our professional duty to be rigorous in tackling disinformation and ensure we aren’t responsible for its spread.

According to UNESCO’s 2018 Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation handbook, the term ‘fake news’ is not commonly understood.

Recognising the importance of intention (sloppy copy may not be deliberately designed to share part or untruths), its handbook underlines a need for professionalism and suggests ‘fake news’ can be broken down into three separate areas:

  • Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country

  • Misinformation: Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm

  • Mal-information: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, social group, organisation or country.

The UK Government Communication Service (GCS) cites disinformation as “the deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain.”

Using these more specific terms is important to help avoid ethical journalism (and communications more widely) being discredited, provides fuller transparency into what is actually happening and clearly acknowledges the serious harm that disinformation can do. 

Adhering to these descriptions within organisational teams and communications therefore helps dispel misunderstandings and ensures greater accuracy at all times.

Ethical communications

While this guide is concerned predominately with disinformation, PR professionals will also find the assessment criteria for journalists helpful in reducing the risk of misinformation when reading UNESCO’s Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation handbook. 

The assessment criteria require communicators to consider the following:

  • Accuracy and verification

  • Strength of research

  • Critical analysis

  • Originality

  • Narrative strength

  • Production values

  • Written expression

  • Adherence to core ethical values expressed in professional code

Fact checking services

Outside of this, communicators keen to verify content also have access to a wide range of further resources which include:

Full Fact – the UK’s independent factchecking organisation

FactCheck – a service created by Channel 4 News

Snopes.com – an internet guide to urban legends, myths and misinformation

How to Spot Fake News – an infographic by The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions


 “We are at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need to take action against disinformation, regardless of source or intent. Our vision is to strengthen the institutions of democracy and uphold our democratic values by ensuring the public and our media have the means to distinguish true news from disinformation.”                 

Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communications

The predominate resource for all communicators concerned with disinformation is the UK Government Communication Service (GCS) RESIST Counter-disinformation toolkit

This excellent toolkit acknowledges that the spread of disinformation can:

  • Threaten public safety

  • Fracture community cohesion

  • Reduce trust in institutions and the media

  • Undermine public acceptance of science’s role in informing policy development and implementation

  • Damage economic prosperity and global influence

  • Undermine the integrity of government, the constitution and democratic processes

It provides a model to help communicators apply a consistent approach to daily practice based on the RESIST acronym:

  • Recognise disinformation: offering advice on objectives and techniques

  • Early warning: advocating digital monitoring

  • Situational insight: how to apply insight in a timely fashion

  • Impact analysis: the goal, impact and reach of the disinformation and what should be prioritised

  • Strategic communication: the options for response and sign offs

  • Track outcomes: evaluation and sharing of learnings

The RESIST toolkit is designed to help organisations build their resilience to disinformation. It provides a systematic approach for public relations practitioners to disseminate reliable, truthful information that stakeholders and members of the public can trust. Every communications professional should have a copy. 


#Antivax – an international threat to health

At the start of 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed vaccine hesitancy as one of ten threats to global health, citing the ‘reluctance or refusal to vaccinate’ as a threat to the eradication of preventable diseases. 

Six months later its research with UNICEF reported that 20 million children worldwide missed out on lifesaving vaccines such as measles, diphtheria and tetanus in 2018. The level of coverage needed (95%) to prevent outbreaks is currently almost 10% beneath where it should be globally. 

Anti-vaccine campaigns spreading disinformation online are creating fear among parents who are then choosing not to vaccinate their children. 

Undermining the expertise of healthcare professionals, unsubstantiated claims found online and spread by accounts on social media are an increasing reason why many previously eradicated diseases are making a comeback. 

In January 2019 the Royal Society for Public Health warned that social media is helping to spread “misleading and dangerous information” about vaccines.

Today the NHS is working to combat this. As one tactic, search different vaccination terms on Twitter - the first result will be a ‘Know the facts’ message, which directs readers to nhs.uk for the best information on vaccines.

Online ‘news’ pages as propaganda

The call in the DCMS Disinformation and ‘Fake News’: Final Report for a Code of Ethics for tech companies (with a special category for social media platforms) is likely to gain further support following a Guardian investigation into lobbying firm CTF Partners.

CTF allegedly built a network of unbranded ‘news pages’ on Facebook for clients ranging from the Saudi Government to major polluters.

Using a practice known as astroturfing, the consultancy took advantage of flaws in Facebook’s political transparency tools, which enabled it to professionalise online disinformation. 

Pretending to be a credible news source and running paid campaigns to drive interested parties to each site, the agency influenced people interested in the subject matter by presenting them with created content despite the appearance of it being a grassroots movement.