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They Said What?! — Handling Misinformation

They Said What?! — Handling Misinformation

On August 31, 2021, San Diego County took the unprecedented step in declaring health misinformation a public health crisis. While it may have been the first local government to do so, others soon followed, including Clark County (NV), Jefferson County (WA) and Contra Costa County (CA), to name a few.

Local governments everywhere are besieged by the rapid spread of misinformation through social media channels. Misinformation related to the COVID-19 virus is the most blatant, recent example of messaging that undermines trust in government. But social media hosts all sorts of unsupported claims, including recent examples such as:

  • Rumors related to a police-involved shooting that get the basic facts wrong
  • Unsupported allegations that the governing body is secretly meeting with developers of a large parcel to cut a sweetheart deal
  • Gossip reporting that the governing body is arbitrarily placing cell towers throughout the community in order to make money

This blog offers tips for local governments on how to counter misleading claims based on two sources: MRSC’s recent webinar, Countering Social Media Misinformation (which can be accessed as an On-Demand Webinar), and The Debunking Handbook 2020, a summary of the science of misinformation, written by a team of 22 prominent scholars, journalists, and other practitioners.

The Challenge

Traditional news media is in decline with the closure of many independent, local news sources and the consolidation of others.  More and more, social media is a place where adults are getting their news — almost 18% of them — making this a powerful tool for public education, and misdirection.

Agenda-driven, politically motivated groups take advantage of social and digital platforms to deceive, mislead, or harm others through creating or disseminating fake news and disinformation, which is then amplified and disseminated quickly through false accounts, or automated “bots,” giving the disinformation a sheen of credibility.

For local governments, a solid communication strategy serves as the vehicle for building trust with residents. An official Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account can act as a key source of trusted information, but absent a clear, effective strategy to counter deceptive social media claims, local governments may find that they’ve lost the trust of the public, the very foundation of representative democracy.

Break the Story First to Preempt Misinformation

During our Countering Social Media Misinformation webinar, Ryder Todd Smith, principal at Tripepi Smith, emphasized the importance of getting out ahead of misinformation by presenting factually correct, reliable information to the public before false information is spread. When you break the news, you have the advantage of being able to shape the message and explain the issue from your local government’s perspective.

Of course, this strategy is most effective when your local government has built a track record as a reliable source of information. Success depends on consistently producing and disseminating accurate information that the audience knows it can trust.  This can be accomplished through a city or county blog, video segments and news items posted to various social media channels, a newsletter, or other consistently disseminated news source.  Here are several examples where a local government’s communication channels have been centrally listed for easy access:

By being the first to distribute correct information about an issue quickly and repeatedly across multiple modes of communication, an agency can reduce the influence of subsequent misinformation, as the first piece of information heard tends to be what sticks.

Encourage Media Literacy

In addition to breaking the story first, local governments should work to prevent misinformation by promoting greater media literacy. Research has shown that by simply encouraging people to evaluate information at the same time as they are reading it can help to prevent misinformation from taking hold.

Page six of The Debunking Handbook 2020 cites the importance of building media literacy by encouraging the public to:

  • Slow down and think about information provided on social media;
  • Evaluate its plausibility in light of alternatives;
  • Always consider information sources, including their track record, their expertise, and their motives; and 
  • Verify claims by checking other reliable sources before sharing them.

The Emergency Management Division of South Carolina’s Rely on Real Information is an example of encouraging media literacy.

Even though these suggestions may seem obvious to discerning users of social media, these simple reminders can reduce the likelihood that your followers share unreliable information.

Use or Amplify Trusted Voices to tell the Story

Trust depends on building relationships, so the most effective messengers are those that have strong connections with the audience you are trying to reach. Video messages from a well-known elected official or a trusted and influential member of the community may be more effective than a dry news release from a nameless or unfamiliar source.

The way in which a message is delivered is just an important as its content. Think strategically about who carries credibility with the communities in your jurisdiction and enlist your leadership to get out and build relationships with key members of the public.

Part of trust-building is admitting to mistakes. Take advantage of opportunities to acknowledge failings and commit to specific preventive actions in the future. Be authentic in talking about your agency’s proudest accomplishments and instances when you’ve fallen short of expectations.

Debunk Misinformation in a Systematic Way

Local governments can’t and shouldn’t respond to every piece of criticism or false information that is registered on social media. However, once an inaccurate post starts to gain traction, the best course of action is to respond in a timely way. The Debunking Handbook 2020 establishes that for debunking to be effective:

[I]t is important to provide detailed refutations. Provide a clear explanation of why the information is false, and what is true instead. When those detailed refutations are provided, misinformation can be dislodged. Without detailed refutations, the misinformation can continue to take on a life of its own, no matter how many corrections are put forth.

Debunking is more likely to be successful if you apply the following components: Focus on the facts, explain the fallacy, and end with restating the facts again.

  • Focus on the facts: If it’s easy to do in a few clear words, state what is true first. This allows you to frame the message.
  • Explain the fallacy: Rather than only stating that the misinformation is false, it is beneficial to provide details as to why. Do this by juxtaposing the misinformation with a clear and salient rebuttal.
  • State the truth again: Restate the facts again so that the truth is last thing that people process.  

Use Several Different Platforms to Help Meet People Where They Are

People are influenced by what others in their groups or communities are doing, which makes social media a powerful influence. Speak directly to your audience on platforms that they trust and already use.  

Your strategy for addressing false information could depend on the department and platform since each social media page may have a different demographic of users. For example, Facebook has a broad reach to older adults, but to reach millennials and younger generations, you would have better luck using Instagram or What’s App.

While it can be challenging to monitor and post to several channels at once, social media management software (e.g., Hootsuite, Zoho Social) can allow you to streamline management of these channels and even pre-program posts up to week (or more) in advance. Civic engagement software like Zencity can help local governments to collect and process information from official (e.g., 311 tickets) and unofficial channels (e.g., social media).

Dealing with Trolls

No matter how well-reasoned and accurate your social media communications are, at some point you will likely encounter a person whose posts are deliberately confrontational, provocative, and possibly misleading. On social media, this person is known as a “troll.”

Ryder Todd Smith’s advises local governments to respond to a troll’s comment once, in a very measured and professional manner, not to win over this person, but rather to show others viewing the comment thread that the local government is being responsive to its critics in a reasoned and open way. The key is to respond only once and to avoid getting into a long back and forth exchange that encourages bad internet behavior. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Tracy Burrows

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.