Fake News Damage Control for SMEs


Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent spate of riots have demonstrated how fake news can have far-reaching effects, not only on individuals but on businesses. “Fake news,” a neologism of the digital age, began as a social media phenomenon and has come to describe the proliferation of false content posing as news.

It’s fair to say that the very definition of “media” has changed. Social media has turned users into reporters in what is known as citizen journalism, with the ability to disseminate content and document events using their cellphones. The challenge however, with what many call the “democratization” of news, is that unfounded claims can easily be made, content can be fabricated and easily shared online via social media platforms.

Consider the stockpiling and supply shortages of items such as toilet paper, soap and sugar in supermarkets across the country at the beginning of lockdown. This mass panic buying was set off by fake news. Similarly, during the riots we experienced in July, there were a number of reports of shopping malls being targeted around the country that proved to be false. The ripple effect caused unnecessary shopping mall closures, which affected not only large retailers but boutique stores and small businesses across the board.

The reality is that fake news is not going away, so as a small business it’s worthwhile having a contingency plan or strategy for dealing with misinformation about your business. The following steps could prove useful in combating the effects of fake news on your business:

Step One: Separate Fact from Fiction

In the event that sensationalist news is circulating around the workplace, as a business owner the first step is to determine your stance on the matter – only if and when an immediate threat to your business has been identified. Reacting with an emotion-laden response is likely to cause confusion and may be counter-productive. Instead, it’s recommended to research the facts, establish what the truth is and formulate a response that’s based on these findings. Lay the facts out clearly and distinguish them from hearsay and rumours.

Step Two: Make an Internal Statement

Your employees look to you for direction, so taking a stance on a matter needs to culminate in a formal statement, preferably in writing. Your statement needs to debunk the fake news but also relay empathy towards those who have been adversely affected. Never minimize or negate the effects that fake news can have on the psyche of employees – a well-timed rumour can lead to heightened anxiety and panic, and impact the mental wellbeing of your team matters.

Step Three: Make an External Statement

There are nuances that exist in a formal press release that will differ significantly to the way you convey your stance internally. You may need a public relations professional to assist with formulating a response that makes an impact and communicates your message in a way that cannot be misconstrued by the media or the public. It is not always necessary to make a statement to the media, but when it is, make sure that its well-written and strategically positioned to allay feelings of fear and prevent the repercussions of misinformation on the business. It’s also worth considering whether this external statement needs to be posted to the business’s social media pages for the benefit of your customer base.

Step Four: Seek Legal Advice

What many do not realise is that there are legal repercussions for spreading fake news. The policing of the online space is something that is progressing at a rapid rate, with social media platforms now being held accountable for due process for reporting misinformation and inappropriate content. These legal consequences were made plain, for example, in the case of news relating to COVID-19 – when the new Disaster Management fake news regulations made spreading fake news with the intention to deceive or incite violence, a criminal offence. If the problem escalates, it may be best to seek legal advice, especially if you are able to identify the source of the fake news.

Remaining level-headed during a crisis involving fake news can be challenging. However, taking a firm, confident and reassuring stance on a matter can go a long way in preventing potential chaos and long-term damage to your bottom line.