In our so-called post-truth society, fake news is a well-recognised danger to democracy and informed public debate. But there is another less well-known risk which threatens to contaminate legitimate issue management, and that’s the rise of the ‘non-fact’.
Unlike lies, hoaxes, propaganda and fake news – which tend to have a relatively limited life, often based on political opportunism – this is about information which is not true but ‘becomes’ a fact and gets embedded into real-life discussion on subjects which genuinely matter. There is no agreed language to define the outcome of this insidious process by which falsehoods ‘become true,’ so I call them non-facts, and they are important to issue management because they get to be accepted as reality.
Drama and repetition are key factors in the longevity of a non-fact, and a good recent example is environmental activists frequently repeating the claim that 500 million plastic straws a day are used in the United States. This appealing number was first proposed in 2011 by nine-year-old Milo Cress on the basis of some phone calls to manufacturers.
While experts have shown the fourth-grader’s estimate to be wildly wrong, it has appeared in some of the world’s leading media outlets and continues to shape debate. Cress, now aged 17, argues that the precise number is less important than the waste. “We use far too many straws than we need to, and really almost any number is higher than it needs to be.”
|This is precisely how some non-facts thrive. Not on the basis of truth, but what people think ought to be true. Or as comedian Stephen Colbert defined his satirical concept of truthiness: “Sort of what you want to be true as opposed to what the facts support.”
A classic non-fact is the belief that wind-turbines are a serious danger to passing birds. This is so deeply entrenched that a proposed 52-turbine windfarm at Bald Hills in Victoria was blocked because of supposed threat to the endangered orange-bellied parrot. The decision was later reversed when it was revealed that the actual risk to the little parrots had been calculated at one death every 600-1,000 years. And of course that was before Donald Trump bizarrely tried to claim that noise from wind turbines causes cancer (though that isn’t a non-fact because pretty much no-one believes it).
Real non-facts emerge and persist for a variety of reasons, including lazy journalism, the decline of basic fact-checking and the echo chamber of social media which is then reflected back into mainstream news and commentary. But the two main driving factors are constant repetition and the desire by some group or organisation to promote the non-fact for their own purposes.
For instance, the claim that childhood vaccination causes autism has been comprehensively debunked by medical authorities and the World Health Organisation declared this as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Yet it continues to thrive as a non-fact, driven by anti-vaccination activists, aided by the power of the Internet and by the news media’s misguided pursuit of ‘balance’ and false equivalency.
Such non-facts are a constant challenge for communicators. In the heat of a high-profile issue campaign it is not possible to respond to each and every attack. But fundamental non-facts which undermine the core issues should not be allowed to stand. This means ensuring close and viable relationships with key stakeholders so that personal conversations can contextualise non-facts should they start to take effect.
The process by which non-facts ‘become’ facts has parallels in the process by which trademarks become generics. Companies typically act promptly and firmly – and assign the necessary resources – to prevent their registered trade names from becoming generics. In exactly the same way issue managers and communicators should act promptly and firmly to prevent non-facts from becoming facts and contaminating legitimate debate.