The Oxfam scandal has transformed the environment for international NGOs. They are under much more pressure than ever before to be as open and transparent as possible. The speed with which stories spread online demands immediate response. But what happens when the stories are false?
How should NGOs respond to fake news?
This is one of the issues considered in our new report, Faking It – fake news and how it impacts on the charity sector. The report finds that charities are struggling to cope with the impact of fake news. Both Save the Children and MSF have been the subject of fake news, falsely accused of colluding with people traffickers as they conduct rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.
The report quotes Sean Ryan, Director of Media at Save the Children as saying:
“In the Mediterranean, our search and rescue operations have been falsely accused of colluding with traffickers. It started as a report in the Italian media and then Defend Europe, the far right group, hired their own boat to try and stop what we were doing. We had to fight this propaganda without any resources. We just had to keep repeating that we only worked with the Italian coastguard.”
MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) have come under similar attack. Their head of press, Gemma Gillie, is deeply concerned about the impact of fake news on their reputation:
“Fake news delegitimises MSF and criminalises the vulnerable which in turn facilitates anti-immigration policies.”
Much has been written about fake news but Faking It is the first report that has looked specifically at the charity sector. Its findings are deeply worrying and illustrate how life has become much more difficult for charities, particularly those involved in international development. In an increasingly strident online environment, it’s harder for charities to be heard. It’s also easier for them to fall victim to false accusations, which often originate online but gain traction through mainstream media.
The report cites one example of trolling in which Girish Menon, the highly regarded CEO of ActionAid was falsely accused of being an ISIS agent. In Girish’s own words:
“We discovered that the message originated from a fake news site hosted in the US. In the heat of the moment there’s no analysis of what’s fake or not. If it had been picked up by other media what would we do? There are only so many times you can issue a rebuttal. Reputations are so brittle, what would our supporters think? And of course ActionAid works in many countries that have an ISIS footprint.”
5 actions that charities can take
- Fake news and misinformation about your work should be monitored and challenged
- Key staff should be trained in verification methods so that information coming from a charity is always carefully scrutinised
- Maintaining and rebuilding public trust should be a key pillar of any communications strategy
- Invest in relationships with trusted media outlets to help reinforce and amplify messaging
Mark Galloway, IBT Director