Opinions and discussion papers

Fake News as a new (?) challenge in crisis and risk communication

Alexander Fekete, 19. March 2017

In our latest DGSMtech workshop we have debated the current role of fake news for civil protection agencies and Virtual Operation Support Teams (VOST). Fake news are not a new phenomenon; propaganda, false information, prefabricated alternative facts but also the demand for alternative sources and critical reflection on opinions have all existed before the advent of the internet. One often repeated arguments for the internet, youtube and social media age being different to TV, photo and print media is speed and accessibility. It is supposed that not only the opportunities for feedback and easier spread of information have increased. Also, the habits of media consumption and expectations for rapid (tweet-speed) information delivery have changed. But also the trust in authorities, journalism and sources of information have transformed, as for example, some digital natives might turn to some youtubers’ opinion first rather than to some of the old media anchor persons.

On this backdraft of transformations in society in dealing with new media and information technologies, the question debated on our workshop was; how does this affect professionals working with social media in press and public relation offices in civil protection agencies for instance, but also, how does it affect volunteers working sometimes „from the sofa“ in similar topics or even in organised structures such as a VOST?

Differentiating Fake News into aspects of information, trust and cooperation

I suggest differentiating fake news aspects into aspects on information, trust and cooperation. Information is an aspect that needs to be verified when being used for further assessment or dissemination by crisis management groups or VOST, for example. Fake news and hoax checking websites were mentioned but also talking to colleagues or comparing with different other sources of information. However, fake news maturity is also a wider education task for everyone; it is not sufficient if press office professionals can distinguish fake from verified news; it becomes even more important for the readers and commentators of news feeds and their comments to differentiate fake news. It is not easy providing a solution to this and training of students at universities or professional training in workshops of reflecting on information and utilising technical as well as personal skills is certainly important, but will not be sufficient to reach all. But everyone gets involuntarily ‘trained’ as well in everyday email communication by receiving spam. Spam and Trojans becoming more and more subtle and sophisticated however, trains also to rely on experiences made and in cases of doubt, relying on feelings and heuristics rather than based on available warnings on the web only. In some sense, such heuristical decision making is similar to decision makers in complex crisis situations; they have to decide on the basis of often unclear, insufficient information bases, contradicting news, alternative facts and different groups of stakeholders to consider or please. In the end, facing complex situations and information, decisions are often based on a ‘gut feeling’. So maybe it is also a rather natural behaviour that many news readers turn to sources they trust since they are familiar or are ‘reducing complexity’. The overall task on information is relating information to contexts; contexts of origin for determining quality, purpose and content environment, but at the same time considering the further usage contexts the further distributing of such knowledge will be exposed to: other experts from different backgrounds, lay people interested who are familiar with the information or not. This relates all to the second aspect of fake news which is trust.

Trust in information is tightly bound to trust in the issuing person or institution. While the information can be believed true and checked on fake news, whether the context of origin and context of dissemination fit, it can still be perceived as fake news by the audience if they can find reason for distrust with the institution. This is a wide matter and to look into single aspects; it is a task for public relations people and VOSTeams alike to be aware they are not just deliverer of information by at the same time scrutinised for their credibility. Actions to prove credibility include long-time preparation to build trust before an event and in an event being sensitive to misperceptions and reacting rather quickly to them. Trust can be achieved in many ways and it would be misleading to reduce it here to some aspects. One may be openness and transparency also on limitations of knowledge or awareness of other opinions. It may also be a strategy to acknowledge mistrust and questioning as an opportunity when critics may possess a certain sense of curiosity when detecting ‘false facts’. This curiosity can be used to match with additional information and showing up how certain interpretations of information of the critics have been lacking further insight. Rather than to oppose, a ‘myth busting’ can also be achieved when including some of the ‘facts’ of the critics and showing up how the larger framing reveals where they fit. It is natural to distrust. In science, scepticism is a must. So also lay people naturally distrust. And in any news and in any argumentation, corrections will be necessary. Even the most trusted facts or institutions can err and it may be quite natural to distrust institutions such as national level civil protection when it is not a familiar topic they work on or when it is unclear what type of work they actually do. This links to the very related topic of cooperation.


Cooperation in relation to Fake News reveals the challenge of accepting different opinions from different people or institutions. For example, many scientists are frustrated talking to journalists when the article later on does not stick tightly to the ‘facts’ they presented. Even worse, some facts may be displayed the wrong way and scientists often then fear for their reputation amongst their peers where credibility is tightly coupled with established common definitions of terms, methods and scientists are very sensitive of contexts, limitations of results and worried about misunderstandings. However, journalism has a different target; reflecting on the information and finding out, what could be interesting for a wider audience. For good journalism, it may be paramount not to stick to the opinions expressed by the scientists and to identify what could busy the readers’ minds when learning about topics. In some sense, even politicians have a different task than scientists and producing and dealing with fake news can be understood as being parts of their daily tasks to achieve and maintain power and leadership by adhering closely to their voters and what might busy them. Cooperation in the sense of fake news means that public relations persons or VOSTs should be aware about different targets of different stakeholder groups in making use of information. For example, it might be important to accept that in a crisis of for example, a nuclear power station failure, information sources vary, and that not only the official sources such as national agencies or emergency management professionals will be interviewed by the press, but also ‘self-acclaimed experts’ are heard. In order to get a more holistic view of a crisis situation, for lay men and women it may be important to have several alternative sources of information available, listen also to those with familiar language or daily interest contexts (and be it the beauty show host on youtube) and make their own opinion in a heuristic way in the end. However, it may be more and more important not to leave everyone alone in their context bubbles, but to be aware in crisis situations who is being listened to and offering additional insights by cooperation.

The thoughts in this blog post were inspired by the two-days workshop by DGSMtech 17-18. March 2017 and the audience and speakers who came from different backgrounds and offered insights into their experience on working with information, press and even fake news. It is certainly not comprehensive and there exists already established research on it, but in the recent context of fake news debates, this was highly inspirational and I am looking forward to the next workshop.