[Editor’s Note: With PR pros concerned about disinformation and misinformation, we jumped at the opportunity to interview Stefan Rollnick who previously was a disinformation analyst in the Office of the First Minister of Wales and now heads the misinformation unit at UK agency Lynn Global.
During the interview, Rollnick stresses being proactive is key, attacking before audience members are exposed to "sticky" misinformation. In addition, he counsels that a thorough monitoring program is indispensable. When you know your audience well, it's clear when misinformation or disinformation is spreading, he says. This interview was lightly edited for space.]
PRNEWS: A false narrative is spreading about your company. You’re unsure if it's misinformation or disinformation. What are the first steps to take?
Stefan Rollnick: Here are three:
1. Establish why people are spreading this information. If it’s by mistake, then it’s misinformation, but if it’s deliberate, it’s disinformation. Often the line between them is blurred, as information may spread deliberately by one individual, but is then propagated when well-meaning individuals are just trying to raise awareness.
If you can trace the information to someone spreading it deliberately, then your best course of action might be legal.
2. Ask, Is this information likely to immediately cause behavior that is harmful? This means knowing in advance what your definition of harm is. It could be reducing sales or affecting your reputation with key stakeholders.
If this information isn’t likely causing harm, then it probably doesn’t need a response, and engaging with it directly is likely to make the problem worse.
3. Then ask, Does this information connect with people’s core beliefs? If the answer is yes, then you want to be careful about simply ‘correcting’ it. When we correct information that is tied up with someone’s core worldview, like politics, religion, identity, we can produce a backfire effect.
If it’s more superficial information, for instance, the price of electric vehicles, then we can consider correcting it if we think it might cause harm.
PRN: Are there practices/tactics/tools that communicators should use beforehand so they’re ready to respond to misinformation and disinformation promptly, should they choose to do so?
Rollnick: Misinformation is sticky, which means the best time to fight it is before it hits. Being proactive is the most important thing you can do when it comes to misinformation. That means knowing your audience and strengthening your connection with it.
It also means shifting your mindset away from this fight as a form of crisis communication. Instead, think about it as building resilience in your audience. That way you're better protected when a crisis arises.
PRNEWS: What should communicators do first?
Rollnick: Establish a proper monitoring framework to identify threats. This doesn’t have to be futuristic, or powered by AI. But you need to be able to understand what low-level chatter is circulating online or offline before it hits the mainstream.
Then you need to establish whether any of this chatter is likely to resonate with your audience. If it is, then it’s a big risk area for a future high-impact misinformation crisis.
PRN: How do you set up a monitoring framework? What does it look like?
Rollnick: The best way to do this is to map the narrative threats you’ve detected onto your audience through quantitative surveying.
PRN: This follows from what you said earlier, about knowing your audience?
Rollnick: Yes. These insights will need to be built into your brand strategy and messaging, so that you’re communicating with your audience in a way that proactively undermines misinformation narratives before they go mainstream.
PRN: Can you give us an example of what this looks like? And what about monitoring the dark web and other less-known sites?
Rollnick: It’s all about knowing where your threats might be coming from so you can detect them as early as possible–and constantly reexamining your thinking on this to expand your monitoring. For some, this might include the dark web, but for most it won’t.
If you’re using highly automated monitoring tools, then obviously there are things like keywords that you can search; but the problem with these tools is that they miss a lot of the more radical, group-based discussion spaces.
PRN: So, manual work is needed?
Rollnick: Right, it's required to identify and monitor key discussion spaces–where determined detractors are trying to persuade new audiences–so you can understand what messaging they’re using and what misinformation they might be spreading.
PRN: In most cases, are communicators/PR pros the point people on misinformation/disinformation or do they work with technologists/engineers/computer staff?
Rollnick: We’ve all got a role to play in the fight against mis- and disinformation. The important thing to understand is that this isn’t just an information problem.
- It’s a technological problem, as new modes of communication make it easier than ever to spread harmful information.
- It’s a legislative problem, as big tech platforms grow rich from the ad revenue and engagement that divided and misinformed platforms bring.
- It’s a moral problem, as disinformation spreaders don’t just seek to spread chaos but to promote divisive world views that pit in-groups against out-groups.
To a large extent it was a group of young tech experts and engineers in Silicon Valley who got us into this mess, and we can’t just rely on them to get us out of it.
PRN: So, social media is the largest spreader of misinformation and disinformation about companies?
Rollnick: Unfortunately, it's true that the social media world we live in is supercharging the speed at which unfounded rumors and speculation can spread about your organization.
PRN: What other sources of misinformation and disinformation should communicators know about?
Rollnick: There is no substitute for listening to your audience and customers so you can better identify sources of misinformation and disinformation.
PRN: Sounds simple.
Rollnick: It’s often as simple as following polling data or focus group research. With a bit more effort you could form human relationships and networks with key parts of your audience. This will ensure a flow of accurate information into those communities and you will gain valuable listening insights on where audience members are getting their information from in return.
PRN: Let's look ahead. Will most companies eventually have a misinformation person/people on staff, battling false information full-time? If so, when? 5 years from now? Sooner?
Rollnick: The future for misinformation is integrated–whether that’s with communication teams or with behavioral insights teams. Misinformation research and strategy lies somewhere in the middle of behavioral science, psychology and strategic communication–with a dose of politics and political philosophy thrown in for good measure.
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein