There is a saying on online forums that “about 78% of all statistics shared online are made up to prove a point – including this one.”
This has become particularly relevant lately, where we have seen many discussions about fake news. And while it is often discussed in relation to politics, in particular during political elections, there has been little attention on the impact of fake news in discussions about CSR-related issues. As such, this blog elaborates on the rise of fake news and explores how fake news might have grave implications for CSR-discussions.
What is “fake news”?
The increasing relevance of fake news can, in part, be attributed to the rise of a networked society. Here, mass communication technologies and the rise of the post-truthera has created new circumstances where
“objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”(Oxford Dictionaries.)
Fake news is often compared to disinformation, which is described as
“intentional falsehoods spread as news stories or simulated documentary formats to advance political goals.”(Bennett & Livingston, 2018)
This, along with an increased distrust in news outlets ability to disseminate objective information, has caused more and more people to turn to social media as their primary source of information. This is especially seen with the younger generation, as they grow up in a world defined by more racial, ethnic and political diversity than ever, and consequently distrust news outlets ability to disseminate information from a single “objective” point of view (Marchi, 2012).
As a result, the younger generation often prefer information that they know to be subjective, e.g. from opinionated talk shows or shared by friends. This has created a more polarized news landscape, where people often seek out information from social media contexts and news outlets that confirm their views, which means that it has become possible to live a life where you can almost completely avoid serendipitous encounters with conflicting views that forces you to rethink your opinion.
What are the implications for CSR-related discussions?
This development towards a preference for information confirming current beliefs combined with a fundamental distrust in objective information is particularly relevant for discussions about CSR-related issues. The main issue is that a defining part of disinformation, is that it is described as intentional, which suggests a serious concern, seeing how social media has amplified the impact of intentionally misleading statements. Consequently, we have seen that some organizations, in an attempt to pursue economic and sometimes illegitimate goals, exploit this distrust in information and diminished impact of objective facts to polarize opinions and derail discussions about important issues such as climate change.
As a result, the increased awareness of disinformation has created a context where companies, instead of adopting more socially responsible practices, attempt to question the legitimacy of the research and the groups trying to prove the ramifications of neglecting these issues e.g. that climate change is a real and serious issue. This is especially seen with the rise of astroturfing organizations – a term derived from ‘AstroTurf’, a brand of a synthetic grass often used on football fields – which describes the practice of masking the sponsors of a message to make it appear as something that originates and is supported by grassroots participants. The goal with astroturfing is to ensure that a message or an idea (e.g. fake news) appear as something that emerges through legitimate processes, often with the intent to cause confusion and distrust in legitimate information. Companies thereby attempt to derail CSR discussions, as seen for example when ExxonMobil allegedly created and funded a think tank to appear independent and legitimate, but with the sole purpose of challenging the consensus around climate change as a serious issue and a result of human action.
What are the implications – and what can be done?
This does however present us with a bit a paradox, as increasing awareness about the use of disinformation and shedding light on the existence of astroturfing organizations is not only a positive thing. The challenge is that while questioning the legitimacy of research or news shared by friends is positive, increased awareness about the existence of astroturfing organizations might spark a distrust in the legitimacy of “real” grassroots movements.
Increased awareness thus not only affects the illegitimate ones, but potentially also undermines and questions all forms of grassroots movements, thereby eroding the very foundation that some of the movements fighting for CSR are built on. Consequently, the key is balance. You need to be critical about what you read online, but the increased awareness about fake news should not discourage you from pursuing collaborative goals, after all
“The main idea underlying collaborative projects is that the joint effort of many actors leads to a better outcome than any actor could achieve individually”(Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010)
Therefore we need to be aware of the destructive power of disinformation, but also understand that not all ideas and opinions are the product of hidden political agendas – some are and it is crucial to be able to identify those – but some are still trying to make the world a better and more sustainable place.
- Bennett, W. L., & Livingston, S. (2018). The disinformation order: Disruptive communication and the decline of democratic institutions. European Journal of Communication, 33(2), 122–139.
- Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59–68.
- Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, blogs, and fake news, teens reject journalistic “objectivity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), 246–262.
Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow embedded in the Governing Responsible Business research environment and part of CBS Sustainability. His research is mainly focused on the impact of the digital transformation, in particular, the influential dynamics that shape the communicative constitution of public opinion as citizens, politicians, NGOs and corporations engage in a highly fluid negotiation of meaning between millions of actors. Daniel is currently focusing on the influential dynamics shaping this communicative constitution within the field of sustainability and responsible business, in particular, how interactions on social media shape the sustainability agenda and thereby the production of governance for responsible business.