It’s a nightmare scenario in every organization’s 21st century communications plan: Your reputation is under attack and it’s all playing out on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Social media trolls light a digital wildfire, igniting a massive, cascading misinformation campaign about your business. Rumors, false accusations and downright lies dominate the conversation, unchallenged. Traditional media use the social media outlets as sources or add the social media feeds to online stories, magnifying the attack to a global audience.

And most potentially damaging of all, people who had no particular opinion about your organization are reading, sharing – and taking a position that will be all but impossible to change.

The phenomenon is called “confirmation bias,” the tendency of people to seek out information and points of view they agree with, regardless of the facts. Most ominous is what researchers call “the backfire effect” – that is, when people who have taken a position are faced with facts that run counter to their beliefs they respond by digging in even harder on their original position. Facts intended to correct have the opposite effect.

Confirmation bias is a well-known and ancient phenomenon, with references stretching back to Greek historians.

More recent research indicates that there is an actual pain response in our brains to being presented evidence that shows we’re wrong. In other words, we’re hard-wired to reject facts contrary to our beliefs. (For more on that and other research into confirmation bias, see a wonderful three-part series from the Institute for Public Relations.)

Enter the age of instant, constant communication, particularly via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media makes it easy for like-minded people to find each other within milliseconds. They reinforce each other’s views by commenting, “liking” or re-tweeting. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm can further impact the spread of misinformation.

“Facebook’s algorithm manipulates what you see in your feed. You are more likely to be see posts that you agree with than those that express views different from yours,” said Dr. Christine Himes, Dean of the Lewis College of Human Sciences at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Unfortunately, there are many examples of algorithms running amok.”

This, researchers would say, is how you end up with “birthers,” anti-vaccination activists and global warming denialists, growing more fervent in their beliefs with each piece of contrary evidence. According to a recent study on the spread of misinformation, people who select and support self-confirming content on social media create an echo chamber that can segregate and further polarize users. “Users mostly tend to select and share content related to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest,” according to the study.

What we now have is confirmation bias on steroids.

From a risk management standpoint, what can you do to deal with this phenomenon that can threaten your organization’s stock price, reputation and perhaps its very future?

Be Prepared to Move Fast

The Golden Rule of crisis management and risk management again applies: Plan now for what to do before the crisis hits. In the case of confirmation bias and social media, a crucial step is to react as quickly as possible – before the many people who don’t know about you or have no opinion on your reputation form one that can be hard to change.

Your tools to combat confirmation bias include:

  • Speed and transparency – get your key messages onto social media channels as quickly as possible. Update regularly with honest, transparent information as the issue develops. If you are not honest and spin your message, you will eventually be exposed and pilloried on social media.
  • Proactive engagement – including one-to-one contact with individuals and the offer to take the conversation offline.
  • Liberal use of hyperlinks back to key messages on your official website or social media sites and to independent sources that can serve to support or corroborate your facts.

Trial attorneys were wrestling with confirmation bias when tweets were a sound made by birds.

“We’ve been dealing with it and not even giving it a name,” said Roger Synenberg, a founding attorney of Synenberg, Coletta & Moran in Cleveland with 30-plus years of experience.

Bruce Hearey of Ogletree Deakins in Cleveland has been practicing law since 1975 and remembers being taught 40 years ago that jurors usually make up their minds by the end of the opening statement.

“Not totally, maybe, but they’ve taken a position,” Hearey said. “The evidence that’s presented that supports that position, they’d give credence to. What didn’t, they’d discard.”

In a risk management situation, your initial social media posts are your opening statement. Make them count.

It Can’t Be Just the Facts, Ma’am

Subodh Chandra is founder and managing partner of The Chandra Law Firm in Cleveland. He’s a former federal prosecutor who’s frequently involved in high-profile civil litigation, including having represented the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot and killed by Cleveland police, in a lawsuit against the city. He’s also an avid user of social media, including Facebook.

“The frustrating thing is that you can’t necessarily simply use facts,” Chandra said. “It’s enormously frustrating.”

Chandra talks about trying to understand “the values behind the confirmation bias.”

“When I’m picking a jury, one of the things I try to do is ask a series of questions so I can surface the values to determine confirmation bias,” he said.

Ogilvy Public Relations, as part of the Institute for Public Relations series on confirmation bias, argued compellingly about the effectiveness of using a narrative approach to combat confirmation bias, including affirming an audience’s core values.

Your Action Steps

Practically speaking, what does this mean for risk management, crisis communications and confirmation bias?

  • Truth and honesty are core values. Tell the truth, always.
  • Remember that you can’t win the day just by presenting a blizzard of facts.
  • Know your organization’s core values as well as the values your stakeholders hold dear.
  • Someone in your organization needs to be prepared to tell your organization’s story. Identify those people and make sure they’ve had media training.
  • When you’re at fault, take responsibility and say you’re sorry. Accountability is a core value.

Finally, consider the sage advice of a legendary risk and crisis manager, Casey Stengel: “The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven’t made up their minds.”

Don’t let the haters on social media define your reputation.

This three-part series will conclude in an upcoming edition of the SandRun Risk newsletter with a look at litigations communications in the age of social media. Portions of these stories appeared previously in the Hennes Communications newsletter. Howard Fencl has more than 30 years of experience in public relations and in television news production and management. Thom Fladung worked at newspapers for 33 years before joining Hennes. For more on how to effectively communicate amid a crisis or reputation-challenging event, contact Hennes Communications and ask about our social media training sessions.