The University of Southern California's Annenberg School introduced a new question in its 2010 Digital Future Project: “Overall, how much do you trust the Internet?”
Forty-two percent of respondents said they have some or a lot of trust in the Internet. Fourteen percent of respondents said they have no trust in the Internet.
It's not hard to see why. Wikipedia entries can be created with bias and edited by anyone. ChristWire, a satirical take on right-wing Christian issues, has had its “news” taken as fact by media outlets.
And in late August, Washington Post sports reporter Mike Wise was suspended after posting false information to his Twitter account – information that was then passed along by other media outlets, including the Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald. (The outlets attributed the information to Wise.)
Wise said that his fake tweets were meant to make a statement about declining media standards, saying that while he was sorry for his actions, he “was right about nobody checking facts and sourcing.”
While he may be right, the more important lesson can be found in the instant disintegration of Wise's credibility and the rapid spread of information – correct or not – on the Internet. Moreover, PR pros ought to be familiar with their organization's substantiation and vetting process before posting so much as one character. Don't have one? It's time to get started.
Pull together the associations, agencies, and media outlets you're comfortable sourcing. Make them known to your staff. And use extra caution when using user-generated content and information posted via social media. Follow links that were used in formulating the post.
Do they link to formal statements or verified news reports? Check facts diligently. Are opinions stated as such instead of fact? It's fine to agree with opinion, but make sure your readers can tell the difference. Do you need to crunch your own numbers for an ad or campaign? Substantiate carefully in case you're ever questioned about your work. We're talking links to reports and dated screenshots of Web pages.
Trust in the Internet may be waning – but that's no excuse not to be truthful in your own communications efforts.
Dan Solomon is CEO of Virilion.