Sharing Fake News Can Hurt Your Reputation

Mislead the people who trust you, and you've got a world of problems.

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By Lida Citroën

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Professionals today know that to influence, inspire and impact their target audiences, they must manage the way they are perceived in person and online. Directing the perception you want others to have of you was once seen as "spin" or market manipulation, but today, it's seen as good career hygiene.

Impression management is not about being false or misleading, but rather being mindful and intentional about how you present yourself, express your values (skills, talents, experience, unique perspective, etc.), and promote your beliefs to the people you deem relevant. Truth and authenticity are cornerstones of a sustainable impression management strategy, and the prevalence of fake news is impacting our ability to build trust and sustain a valuable reputation.

Related: Fake News and the Threat to Your Brand: 4 Things You Can Do About It Now

What is impression management?

Impression management is the process of attempting to influence other people's perceptions of you by shaping and regulating information in social interactions. Impression management techniques require you look at all touch points and inter-personal exchanges and tie them back to your desired perception and reputation. For instance, if I saw you speeding recklessly on the highway, I might see you as a careless driver. But, if you were focused on impression management strategies, you would explain that your speeding was because you were headed to an emergency, thus preserving your reputation as a careful, law-abiding citizen.

In the past, impression and reputation management focused more on in-person interactions, posturing, communications and image. Today, online conversations, relationships and interactions are both public and permanent, thus creating digital capital that either confirms or dispels desired reputation and perception. What you post today can potentially sink your career in the future with a few keystrokes, requiring reputation repair.

The prevalence of fake news.

Fake news is just that -- fake. It is information designed to look legitimate and true but isn't. Anyone behind a keyboard can create a fake news story and post it online under a fake news site name, with graphics and links to make it appear legitimate. For instance, if Bob in Idaho decides to create a fictitious story that McDonald's uses mice in its hamburger meat, he can post it online, and it will likely get the attention of Bob's friends and contacts. Bob's friends will be shocked and outraged at the idea of mice-meat in their Big Mac and will likely want to alert their friends, so they will share the news. Thus, the fake news spreads.

Related: Don't Let Marketing Zest Lead You Into the Fake News Morass

Like spreading rumors or gossip, sharing fake news can have serious consequences. Fake news can cause a company's stock prices to dive, customers to boycott a brand, politicians to lose positions and professionals to be fired. If an employer, constituent or patron feels that the liability posted by the fake news shared is too great, they can opt to remove their connection to the entity posting the information as a way of managing the optics of the situation.

Why are we sharing fake news?

A PEW Research study found that 62 percent of adults in the U.S. get their news on social media, with the most popular source being Facebook. Without proper vetting, fake news can be spread without a second thought, often reaching tremendous audiences.

Many social media sites do not currently fact check their user's posts, photos, videos and stories for accuracy, copyright protection or validity. These sites were designed for the most organic form of social networking and interaction, and they let their users share content and images at will, providing they comply with posted decency laws and rules. Sites like Facebook encourage users to interact with friends, make new connections, self-monitor and police the behavior of other users as needed.

Echo chambers help fake news look legit.

If the potential damage to our reputation and career is significant, why would we share fake news? The answer often lies in the power of echo chambers. Maslow identified one of our basic human needs as "belongingness and love" -- acceptance, affiliation and being part of a group -- and that is real on social media. People have a strong desire to attach to something popular and trending -- and to be the first one to share breaking news.

An echo chamber works as an implied credible distribution source. Online, we tend to associate with like-minded people and therefore our posts, comments and shares (including news) tend to go unquestioned because it supports our collective existing belief and view. As we build a network of contacts, those contacts begin to trust what we share. The more we post, the more credible we appear, creating a further implied trustworthiness, as likes and shares appears to verify the information.

Echo chambers and social media filters have been in the news lately as sites reveal their algorithms for sharing content on a user's feed or timeline. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and even LinkedIn aggregate and push content to users based on preferences and user behavior. Many users like this system since it directs content to them that they like to see.

What happens to our reputation when we share fake news?

The danger of sharing fake news -- in an online environment of credibility -- is damage to the trust relationship a user has with their online contacts. The hardest part of impression management is to fix or rebuild trust with target audiences.

Perception lives in the minds of the people we interact with. The way we speak and behave forms an idea of what we value and support. Sharing news that isn't supported by fact can promote a perception of irresponsibility and recklessness. After all, your online connections have learned to believe and trust what you post, comment on and share, and when you mislead them, you might have all your content questioned.

Related: Facebook is Testing Fake News Filtering Overseas

Maintaining a viable, sustainable and trustworthy reputation and personal brand requires care and focus. When you share information or news, you assign credibility to it by transferring your own trustworthiness as you endorse the content. Instead of rushing to share breaking news, vet the source, information and conclusions drawn in the piece. Ask yourself, "is it possible this could be untrue? Do I know this news source or the person promoting this information?" If the answer is no, move along. Let someone else be the first to break this (fake) news.

Lida Citroën

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Reputation management and personal branding expert

Lida Citroën is an executive personal branding and reputation management specialist, a TEDx and keynote speaker, instructor on LinkedIn Learning and consultant working with global business leaders and military veterans to enhance their position and reputation in strategic markets.

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