This Week in PR Ethics (10/22/20): Disinformation, Misinformation and Deepfakes

This week many of the ethics concerns for public relation and communications professionals are about disinformation, misinformation and deepfakes.

  • Bi-partisan, small town disinformation – This New York Times article is a must read for all communication professionals. It highlights how “Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.” It is important to note, this is being done by both parties. As the Times reports “Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.” There are so many concerning things about this, the least of which is further eroding consumers’ trust of apparent earned media.


  • Equal opportunity disinformation – This article on 538 highlights another example great example of disinformation for profit. They reported on “three sites that, until last week, were pumping out misleading, hyperpartisan Spanish-language content on both the left and right.” The driver behind this? “Social media companies have incentivized disinformation by rewarding it with financial dollars,” Donovan explained. “The fact that he was targeting Latinos with Spanish-language disinformation or misinformation from either side of the aisle shows a kind of willingness to create chaos so long as it makes money.” I have long believed that when the factories of fraud turn their attention to disinformation and short selling, communication professionals will face a significant challenge. This looks to be one of the first examples, although using existing ways of monetizing, rather than the stock market.


  • Seeing won’t be believing – Deepfakes are another form of disinformation, and a new study claims that 90% of online content in five years will be deepfake video. For me, the most chilling conclusion from this data is soon consumers will not longer trust what they see in video. We all expect images to be photoshopped, but imaging if people discount videos of brutality because they are likely deepfakes – or activist groups use deepfakes to attack your company. We are going to need technology to fight this, and that could create further inequalities.


  • Fixing incorrect information – This week Exxon had to move quickly to correct misinformation when President Trump used the company as an example of pay-for-play (permits for campaign donations). This clearly reinforces the need for monitoring, as well as a number of elements of the PRSA Code of Ethics.
Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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