New PR Research Brings Hope for a Disinformation Vaccine

An image illustrating the concept of a disinformation vaccine.

It was 2014 when I first heard the term “disinformation,” in a lecture by a Ukrainian journalist at a briefing to NATO. Tatiana Matychak and Olga Yurkova had just started StopFake.org to counter the Russian propaganda that accompanied its invasion of Ukraine. Yurkova was at a conference, briefing NATO Public Affairs Officers on what at the time was a new weapon of war, disinformation. Stopfake.org was begun as the Ukrainian version of Snopes. It learned a tremendous amount about how that Russian disinformation was spreading through social media, mainstream news, and into the living rooms of average Ukrainians.

StopFake.org was definitely on to something. A few days later I was in Estonia and heard similar tales of false news stories appearing in a Russian-speaking part of that country. Then a few months after that, at IPRRC, I sat in on a discussion of how the exact same pattern was occurring in Finland. Fast forward to the recent years here in the U.S., and we have homegrown proof of the damage disinformation can do.

New research presented at the 2021 International Public Relations Research Conference offers at least one possible strategy to lessen the damage fake news can do to your brand.

A disinformation vaccine

It’s not unusual these days to see competitors and opponents amplify rumors and disinformation about their rivals. Courtney Boman of the University of Alabama decided to explore how best to respond to these threats. (“Unveiling Disinformation in PR: Influencing ethical concerns, moral outrage, and amplification”)

She tested three possible responses to disinformation when it applies to an organization:

  1. Strategic silence: Not responding at all, in hopes that the attack just goes away.
  2. Pre-bunking: Counter-arguing against the rumor before it is made public.
  3. Debunking: Refuting the information after an attack.

She tried each of these strategies on 965 study participants to see which produced the most social amplification, moral outrage, and ethical concerns. It turned out that pre-bunking, along with explicit warnings about the inaccuracy of the rumor, was most effective at countering disinformation.

Her research also found that individuals with higher levels of moral outrage, not surprisingly, are also more likely to amplify an incorrect message. Individuals with higher levels of ethical concerns were less likely to amplify the message.

What this research argues for will drive the legal beagles nuts. To pre-announce bad news is every corporate lawyer’s definition of the worst idea ever. But one of the things we’ve learned from all these IPRRC papers is that transparency and proactive communications are the most effective tools in a crisis. So grab the sales, marketing, and finance guys and march into Legal with guns blazing and data in hand that shows the benefit of minimizing bad news. They may just be won over.

If you know there’s fake news about to hit that will affect your organization, the best thing to do is to jump the gun and inoculate as many people as you can against it. Now there is hope for a disinformation vaccine. ∞

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.