LONDON — Fake news is a growing phenomenon, and though it might not be the first thing we think of when we hear the term, there is evidence to suggest it is beginning to pose a serious challenge for development organizations.
A report published last month by the International Broadcasting Trust defines two ways in which development organizations have fallen victim to fake news: Through “malicious fabrications” deliberately spread about their work; and through the disruption caused by internet trolls using misinformation to “sway public attitudes” against the causes they fight for.
A report published Tuesday about the impact of "fake news" on charities highlights the experience of international NGOs, including Save the Children and ActionAid, which have been targeted by false stories designed to disrupt their work and smear the reputations of senior staff — but the report also warns that aid groups should take steps to avoid disseminating misleading stories and statistics themselves.
One of the NGOs covered in the report was ActionAid, whose chief executive was the subject of a fake news report linking him to the terror group ISIS. It was “completely ludicrous, completely made up,” explained Sally O’Connell, ActionAid’s head of digital, who has more than a decade’s experience working in social media for the British charity sector. Nonetheless, the incident demonstrated the sudden reputational risk that NGOs can face in an era of fake news, and the pressure on organizations to respond quickly and effectively.
Devex sat down with O’Connell to discuss how development organizations can respond when fake news strikes, and the steps they can take to protect their staff from online abuse. The conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.