Storytelling in the age of fake news

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Mondli Hadebe, from Eclipse Communications investigates how to combat fake news and why the industry needs to take a serious stand.

Disinformation has proliferated in all spheres of our world, growing in scope and magnitude through the power of social media platforms and widespread access to content creation technologies.

The Oxford English Dictionary added the term ‘fake news’ to the dictionary in 2019, following its increased use over the years (use rose by 365% from 2016 to 2017). 

The rise of citizen journalism means that everyone with a cell phone is reporting on something. One of the key roles that public relations (PR) professionals can play in fighting fake news is to ensure that they provide accurate, accessible information to journalists. 

Combating fake news is something that the communications industry has to take seriously. Every time the public’s trust in the news is eroded, PR suffers a knock as well because audiences turn off. After all, there is little value in getting a client on the news if no one is watching it anymore. 


Prince of Darkness meme

The general public can be producers of disinformation, it does not always stem from brands or corporations. A recent example is the Prince of Darkness meme attributed to Nando’s, the multinational fast-food chain renowned for its campaigns that reference and satirises South African culture, colloquialisms and politics.

Nando’s acclaimed and timely marketing efforts often inspire copycat versions from the public. Periodically, one of these unofficial posters goes viral, compelling the company to review the fake content bearing its brand identity and issue a statement in response. 

This was the crux of the Nando’s-branded Prince of Darkness meme, which ridiculed power utility Eskom CEO, Andre de Ruyter. In response, the company distanced itself from the meme and urged the public to beware of fake advertisements from online parody accounts.

The Tembisa 10

Pretoria News published an exclusive story which claimed that a Tembisa woman, Gosiame Sithole, had given birth to decuplets (10 children) at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. 

The story, which was later proven to be a hoax, remains a low point for South African journalism and media. In response, countless investigations, reviews and legal proceedings were set in motion to answer why the basic tenets of journalism were flouted. 

Ironically, the Tembisa 10 story was submitted for the International News Media Association’s  (INMA) “Best Use of Social Media” award consideration. The move drew the ire of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) which labelled it as ludicrous and dangerous. The INMA later agreed and withdrew the story for award consideration. 


Social media is ground zero for the spread of disinformation. Clickbait, unofficial and unverified accounts, deepfakes (AI-created digital media), and meme content are familiar to all social media users. Navigating these aspects of the digital world is quintessential to the online experience. 

While much of this content could be classified as tongue-in-cheek user-generated content, fake news (such as Prince of Darkness and Tembisa 10 cases) can be antagonistic and perpetuate falsehoods, potentially triggering a butterfly effect of negative consequences. 

Social media companies have been under pressure to actively remove misleading or false information from their sites. Here are steps that Silicon Valley’s largest companies are taking to mitigate the problem: 


In July 2022, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, announced Sphere, an AI-powered tool that will detect and address disinformation and fake news on the platform. This is an important development with possible implications for Meta’s other platforms including Instagram and Whatsapp. 


A Google Jigsaw experiment found that running social media adverts that educate people about disinformation techniques improved their ability to recognise manipulative content. Effectively, ‘inoculating’ people against fake news. This was piloted in Europe and themed to combat disinformation targeting Ukrainian refugees. 


Twitter introduced its crisis misinformation policy in May 2022. The policy is intended to mitigate against amplifying or recommending potentially misleading content, particularly during a crisis, such as situations of armed conflict, public health emergencies, and large-scale natural disasters. Tweets with content that violate the crisis misinformation policy will be placed behind a warning notice. 


As a critical media stakeholder, the PR profession will suffer if the threat of fake news is allowed to fester unabated. When partnering with clients and brands to tell their narratives, PR professionals must always consider the ethical implications of their work and the content they disseminate to the media. Fostering a collaborative approach with recognised publications and suppressing renowned fake news hubs are equally important. 

Performing social listening, which describes tracking mentions and conversations related to a client’s brand, is critical. It provides insights about a company’s audience, the audience’s expectations and generally, the key conversations surrounding the brand. Effective PR practitioners are always on the watch, waiting to discover new opportunities and recognise potential threats. 

Here is a basic checklist for addressing fake news:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of how media manipulation tactics can be used to create distrust, destabilise organisations and inflict harm
  • Prepare well-researched and fact-checked stories for media dissemination 
  • Engage in third-party monitoring and sentiment analysis (social listening)
  • Identify and follow the influencers who are most likely to spread disinformation
  • Build a community of advocates, key opinion leaders and experts on social and traditional media that help establish and maintain a positive narrative around your client’s company.