Master of Communications Management

Public relations and the fight against fake news

Erika Kastner is a McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management candidate and Communications Officer at Conestoga College



Misinformation and disinformation are certainly not new phenomena. Rumours, conspiracy theories, and fake news have existed in societies for longer than we can probably account for.


In Ancient Greece, corn merchants spread rumours of storms and shipwrecks to raise grain prices for profit. In the late 1700s, Ben Franklin’s made-up story of an attack backed by King George III on the frontiers of New York was reprinted in papers, helping stiffen American resistance to the British and sway European opinion against England. The Great Moon Hoax in 1835 had The New York Sun report on the discovery of a lunar civilization with blueish unicorns, two-legged beavers, and temple-dwelling man-bats. The attributed expert had no knowledge of his name being used in the story.


However, this modern era of falsification seems different. The volume of misinformation and disinformation and the speed at which they can spread have been amplified by digital platforms. It has given the issue a new dimension, too. Our use of and reliance on social media have made the issue more pervasive and harder to maintain.


Eighty-three per cent of Canadians use social media, making the country one of the world’s most connected. That number is expected to grow to 96 per cent by 2026. Among the top uses of social media, Canadians say they read the news, pass the time, check out what others are talking about, share opinions, and find like-minded communities and interest groups.


A study from 2019 found that 90 per cent of Canadians say they have fallen for fake news, with the majority pointing to Facebook as the most common source (social media, in general, came in second). At least we are self-aware.


During the pandemic, nine in ten Canadians used online sources to find information about COVID-19. Of that group, 96 per cent said they suspected the information they saw was misleading, false, or inaccurate. Even scarier? Just over half of all Canadians shared COVID-19 information they found online without knowing if it was accurate or not, possibly aiding in the spread of inaccuracies.


The danger of misinformation and disinformation in this new era cannot be ignored, as many have already argued. I am not enlightening on something you do not already know. We have seen the devastating effects: increasing mistrust, polarization, incivility, and violence.


What does it mean for communicators?

Misinformation (sharing information without knowing it is wrong) and disinformation (deliberately creating or spreading false information to mislead) are shaping the future of public relations and communications management. The growing concern around fake news and its far-reaching and dangerous consequences on society has started a conversation around what it means for us in the field and the role we should be playing in the fight.


Putting aside our moral obligation as individuals to be part of a solution and not part of a problem that aims to inflame or suppress social conflict, communicators have another vested interest: misinformation and disinformation put our work at risk.


Just 42 per cent of Canadians trust the media. That is the lowest it has been in seven years. As we work to build and maintain relationships, we are being undermined by the damage misinformation and disinformation have caused to public trust, including the information we share on behalf of our clients and organizations online and through the media.


What good is a relationship without trust?


What is our role?

Continuing to practice ethical public relations is part of the path forward. I am not suggesting the industry is unethical – quite the opposite. I am advocating that communicators remain consistent in applying standards to their work, as we have always tried to do.


Fair, honest, and accurate communication with the media and the public fosters trust and respect. Remaining credible helps protect our audiences from rumours, conspiracy theories, and fake news as they navigate the never-ending list of headlines on their social media feeds. In doing so, we support efforts from other industries and collectively drown out unreliable sources to limit the spread of misinformation and disinformation.


Sensationalism will always exist, as will the desire to manipulate perspectives for personal gain. How we approach our work and the value we place on our role in this fight will determine how much power misinformation and disinformation have in the future.