How to Defend Against Rumors, Lies, and Propaganda

When PR Really Goes to Work

Imagine being the media director for a state lottery. Unless something really, really goes wrong, your job is 100 percent good news. The press releases you send are about a grandmother winning $50,000 or a single dad working two jobs hitting the MegaMillions for $125 million.

The real challenge is handling bad news, right? Disasters and scandals. Things you can't control. Except that's not the worst thing you can face.

Rumors, lies, and propaganda aren't the normal kind of bad news. A flood means you no harm. People understand the fires happen, that bosses sometimes have personal problems. But when you're confronted with rumors, lies, or propaganda, it's bad news aimed straight at your heart, and it's not random at all. Another human being is aiming that arrow.

How to Fight Rumors, Lies, and Propaganda

Public figures are only as effective as their reputations are strong. Rumors, lies, and propaganda eat away at reputations. Rumors persist because non-factual assertions—built-in defenses further explained below—are very effective. Lies exist as abject subversion of truth, fact. Propaganda is even tougher to combat. It's an organized campaign of misinformation, fear, censorship, half-truths, and lies. Defending against these cancers takes patience, skill, and strategy.

People want to know the unknown. People will always gossip about public figures, people in power and no one is above the proverbial across-the-fence conversation, even if they fail to realize they're taking part in gossip until after the conversation has ended. It's inevitable. So how do you fight a damaging rumor without giving it legs in the media?

Part of the reason misinformation is able to take such a stronghold is that our brains are hard-wired to retain only the most important information about other people. We simply don't have enough space in our heads to remember every little detail, good or bad, about everyone we encounter.

Why Rumors are So Viral and Damaging

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have allied over the last decade with instant access to news via cell phones and text messaging to make of the rumor mill a veritable factory farm. But the rush to "be the first to know" and share accordingly often may have significant consequence. Rumors, once released, are not unlike wild horses: Unsubstantiated information rapidly gains a life of its own, and once a rumor finds its legs corralling it becomes virtually impossible.

The most damaging rumors are about non-factual things. Non-factual things—not lies. There is a distinction. Non-factual things are impossible to substantiate: future events, past mysteries, true personal motivations. Rumors are inherently tough to squash because they have built-in defenses. Nobody can know the future. A mystery from the past is still, by definition, a mystery because the circumstances surrounding it weren't documented substantially enough, or by proper parties, to effectively illuminate the larger question of why or how it happened.

There's never any proof of another person's innermost thoughts, feelings, or motivations.

Rumors and False Memories: The FOMO Effect?

Hearing a rumor not only has the power to make you think it might be true; particularly in children hearing a rumor can actually implant false memories. Perception is reality—not merely a product of political cynicism, real science exists proving it.

Examples of Rumors and Public Relations

Rumors aren't just a problem at the office or in your neighborhood. They affect the biggest corporations in the world, politics, professional sports teams and anyone who works in Hollywood. It's instructive to see the different strategies used at the highest levels in these professions. Should you never comment on any rumor? Should you try to squash them right away?

How Lies Work

Lies are different from rumors. A lie tries to subvert a known fact. It's aimed at undermining the truth. A famous example: "The earth is flat." Mountains of evidence exist showing that the earth is round, yet some people persist in believing that the earth is flat because they want to believe it.

Fighting Back Against Lies

When confronted with a lie, it's not always enough to fight back with fact and truth. Some people are motivated to believe and propagate certain lies because those lies support their personal narrative. A prime example is the birther movement propagating the myth that President Barack Obama was born outside the country, despite all the evidence that he was born in Hawaii and clear forgeries proffered as 'proof' that he was born in Kenya. The first step in attacking the foundation of a lie isn't giving people the facts and the truth—it's chipping away at the motive behind people's belief in it.

What Is Propaganda and How Does It Work?

Rumors and lies are often organic. They are sometimes manufactured and leaked by the opposition, but most often, they just happen. Propaganda is entirely different. It's an organized effort to manipulate the public using mass media, censorship, misinformation, half-truths, and lies. Propaganda uses images, caricatures, and fear like a weapon. Rumors and lies can damage you like shrapnel. If you're the target of propaganda, it's not random. It's a dagger aimed at your heart.

How You Can Defeat Propaganda

It's hard to fight fire with fire, especially when you can't use the same evil techniques, manipulations, and lies as the opposition employing propaganda against you. The playing field isn't even, either, as you will typically be David fighting Goliath, as propaganda is a tool of those in power and on top. Yet the greatest strength of propaganda is also its greatest weakness. You don't have to fight on their terms.