One reason I’m passionate about saving mainstream news media is that it isn’t susceptible to fake news as it employs qualified journalists with expertise in verifying facts and heroically chasing the truth to publish accurate, informed news reports. Yesterday it failed badly as numerous well known national and regional news organisations ran the same fake news story.
On the morning of 27 October 2020 an unverified Twitter account which didn’t even link to a website tweeted that the popular retail brand Woolworths would be returning to the high street. The last stores closed more than 10 years ago when the Woolworths Group went into administration. People started to retweet the original tweet and Woolworths was soon the top trend for the UK.
As a result of this solitary Twitter account causing Woolworths to trend numerous respected news organisations rushed to publish news stories that would generate clicks, rank on Google and go viral on Facebook. The Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Mirror, The Star and Metro all ran fake news stories that Woolworths was returning to the high street.
Even more local news organisations ran the story, each writing their own local versions. the Manchester Evening News, Brighton Argus, Liverpool Echo and Birmingham Live were just some of the titles to publish the fake news story.
At least Daily Mail business correspondent Tom Witherow did some proper journalism and called The Very Group to verify the story. A Very Group spokesperson said: “We own the Woolworths trademark in the UK. The Twitter account UKWoolworths is not connected to The Very Group.” Unfortunately this was after the Mail had already run the fake news story.
I have several takeaways from this story. The first is the one that most people have taken that it is a depressing indictment of the state of the news media that it chases clicks and viral content regardless of any actual news value or public information ethos. Nostalgic content does especially well as viral content that people engage with by commenting and sharing. The return of Woolworths is in the same vein as the return of childhood sweet brands, crisp flavours or TV shows.
The second is that despite the need for clicks that journalists were incapable of even the most rudimentary fact checking. I’ve been training PR and communication people how to verify and deal with user generated content and ‘citizen journalism’ for the last ten years. This is a deck from 2015 from a talk I gave at a conference on ‘Verifying user generated content in a crisis‘. It’s now well out of date and was before fake news, misinformation and disinformation became as big as it is today. But even the advice and techniques in that deck would have prevented big news organisations from falling for the Woolworths fake news. It would have taken the journalists a few minutes to do.
In fact the journalists didn’t even need to use any of the techniques outlined in my ageing deck as one clue might have been that the Twitter account spelt Woolworths as Woolsworths.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is an old newspaper adage that was adopted as a slogan by the Chicago City News Bureau. It’s as true today as when it was first uttered. Although when it was first uttered is a great example of why you should check it out.
If your public relations, corporate affairs or communication team needs training or consultancy on how to deal with the real dangers of fake news, misinformation and disinformation then get in touch.