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communications

Fretting over fake news

Conspiracy theories and hoaxes have always existed, but with the rise of social media, dubious stories are gaining more traction than ever

Last week, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg published an open letter saying that he wants his company to take a more active role in stamping out “hoax” stories pinging around its network.

"Fake news" is a real problem. Not only are social media creating a bubble in which people only talk to others with similar viewpoints, but those bubbles are also rife with factual errors.

Conspiracy theories and hoaxes have always existed. But as people spend more time reading articles or watching videos that their friends and family members share on social networks – very few of which are vetted for accuracy – dubious stories are gaining more traction than ever.

Whether it's Barack Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools (he didn't), Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president (nope), or a Washington pizzeria acting as a front for a child pornography ring (which led to real-life violence when a man opened fire in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington), fake news stories have been gaining attention. Last week, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg published an open letter saying that he wants his company to take a more active role in stamping out "hoax" stories pinging around its network.

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And people are worried about this unreliable information, according to a new study conducted by Nanos Research for Toronto-based communications firm Signal Leadership Communication Inc.

"When people see something that's interesting or creates an emotional response, they often share it on Facebook or Twitter, and I think people are afraid they're going to be taken in by a false story and inadvertently play a role in disseminating it," said Janice Mandel, principal at Signal.

"It decreases the impact of media in general: People look at it and they're not sure whether it's true or false."

Even dubious information can do damage, however, particularly considering the speed at which fake stories can spread.

But when it comes to businesses, Ms. Mandel said, not enough people recognize the importance of leaders using those same social media platforms to disseminate their own messages.

"Donald Trump, for better or worse, convinced everyone through the U.S. election that social media had the impact really to change public opinion," Ms. Mandel said.

"In my meetings, people are becoming more convinced that it is something of value and has the ability to build credibility and trust. When somebody reads something from a leader and they know it's coming from the source, that is an important difference."

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