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Helping Companies Understand – and Respond to – Online Misinformation

photo shows a pair of hands. one hand is holding a smartphone. the other is resting on a laptop computer

When misinformation spreads on social media, there can be real consequences for both companies and the public. A new study offers insight into how consumers respond to these online hoaxes, which companies can use to better respond to these misinformation campaigns.

To learn more about the work we talked to Alice Cheng, an associate professor of communication at NC State and co-author of a paper on the study. The paper, “The diffusion process of product-harm misinformation on social media: evidence from consumers and insights from communication professionals,” is published in the journal Internet Research.

The Abstract: What was the fundamental challenge you were setting out to address with this work?

Alice Cheng: The main issue we wanted to tackle was understanding how false information about products spreads on social media and how it affects people’s trust in the company and their tendency to spread negative opinions about it.

TA: What drew your attention to this subject?

Cheng: We were interested in this topic because of the growing problem of false information on social media and its potential harm to companies. We wanted to figure out how this happens to help companies deal with it better.

TA: Tell me about the study itself. What exactly did you do?

Cheng: The study primarily focused on delineating the diffusion process of product-harm misinformation on social media. To achieve this, we employed a mixed-methods approach involving both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

First, we developed a conceptual model based on “cue diagnosticity” and “corporate associations frameworks.” Cue diagnosticity refers to the idea that people use context clues to help understand what is happening in a given situation. And corporate associations refer to how consumers feel about a company’s track record of providing quality products and services.

The model we developed aimed to illustrate how consumers’ perception of product-harm misinformation and consumer attitudes and supportive behaviors toward the company are influenced by factors such as how skeptical the consumers are about information provided by companies and other third parties, as well as how credible people find the claims that a product is harmful.

To test the proposed model, we conducted a survey involving 504 U.S. consumers, using the example of the false claims on social media in 2016 and 2017 that Coca-Cola was recalling Dasani water as a scenario. This survey sought to empirically examine the impact of “perceived diagnosticity” of misinformation and corporate associations on consumer trust and whether people planned to share the negative information they saw online. Perceived diagnosticity, in this context, refers to whether the misinformation actually changes the way consumers think about the company.

Following the survey, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 11 communication professionals. These interviews were conducted to gain practical insights into how this sort of misinformation spreads online, and to understand the strategies employed by communication professionals to combat such misinformation.

The combination of survey data and insights from the interviews allowed us to develop a comprehensive understanding of how product-harm misinformation spreads on social media and the implications it has for consumer trust, negative word-of-mouth, and corporate associations.

TA: And what did you find?

Cheng: Based on the results, the study found that the spread of product-harm misinformation follows a distinct pattern. Specifically, the study found that when people were less skeptical about the misinformation, or when people thought the misinformation was trustworthy, they were more likely to believe that the misinformation was relevant to the company. This, in turn, affected how consumers viewed the company.

The interviews with communication professionals supported the diffusion model, underscoring the potential harm that product-harm misinformation could inflict on consumers’ corporate associations, ultimately eroding trust, damaging reputation, and impacting a company’s financial performance. The interview data also highlighted factors that could make product-harm misinformation more prevalent on social media, such as whether the subject of the misinformation was relevant to the consumer, whether the person who shared the misinformation was close to them in their social network, and how often they were exposed to the misinformation online.

Finally, the communication professionals shared effective strategies for countering product-harm misinformation, including preparedness and attentive listening, proactive communication and transparency, fact-based messaging, seeking third-party endorsements that the claims on social media were untrue, and preemptively strengthening corporate associations and trust as preventive measures.

Overall, the study found that when people were less skeptical about the misinformation they saw, or when they think this misinformation was trustworthy, they were more likely to believe that the information was associated with or relevant with the company. This, in turn, affected how they viewed the company’s ability to manage products and services.

TA: Why is that important?

Cheng: Understanding the intricate dynamics of product-harm misinformation and its diffusion process is crucial for several reasons:

Preserving Consumer Trust: Recognizing how misinformation impacts consumer trust is vital for businesses. By comprehending the factors that influence trust, companies can take proactive measures to preserve their relationships with consumers.

Protecting Reputation: Misinformation, especially related to product harm, can severely damage a company’s reputation. Understanding how this misinformation spreads can help businesses develop effective strategies to protect their brand image and credibility.

Preventing Negative Word-of-Mouth: Knowing how misinformation affects consumers’ inclination to share negative opinions is essential. By grasping the factors that contribute to negative word-of-mouth, businesses can take measures to prevent the rapid dissemination of harmful information.

Informing Communication Strategies: Insights into the factors that contribute to the diagnosticity of misinformation on social media can inform the development of targeted communication strategies. This can help companies effectively address and counteract false information, thus mitigating its negative impact.

Enhancing Crisis Management: Understanding the nature of product-harm misinformation can aid in improving crisis management plans. By recognizing the potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the diffusion process, businesses can be better prepared to manage and mitigate the impact of misinformation during a crisis.

Safeguarding the Bottom Line: Recognizing the potential consequences of misinformation on corporate ability associations and trust is vital for protecting a business’s bottom line. By taking proactive steps to strengthen corporate associations and consumer trust, companies can mitigate the financial impact of misinformation on their operations and performance.

These results are important because they show how false information can harm a company’s reputation. We highlight the need for companies to have good plans to deal with false information and to make people trust them more.

TA: How could these findings be used in the future?

Cheng: Based on the implications provided in the study, the findings hold significant potential for shaping both future research and the strategies used in corporate communications when responding to online misinformation.

TA: What are the implications for future research?

Cheng: There are three implications for future research.

First, future research should consider interdisciplinary approaches to comprehend the diagnosticity of misinformation. This involves taking into account psychological and communication factors, such as information skepticism and content credibility, to understand how and why misinformation gains traction.

Second, the study demonstrates the relevance of cue diagnosticity and corporate associations frameworks in the context of product-harm misinformation. Future studies can expand these frameworks to explore additional consequences, including financial impacts and threats to employee reputation within companies.

Third, further research could delve into the long-term impacts of product-harm misinformation, especially in terms of how it might propagate through negative word-of-mouth and affect trust and corporate associations over time.

TA: What are the practical implications for corporate communications professionals?

Cheng: First, this study underscores that communication professionals can play a pivotal role in educating consumers about differentiating between accurate information and misinformation. Communicators can focus on specific segments of the audience that might require more assistance in discerning product-harm misinformation, particularly tech-savvy and younger users.

Second, by highlighting inconsistencies and suspicious elements within the misinformation, communication professionals can decrease the perceived credibility of such information. Keeping updated with the features and algorithms of social media platforms enables professionals to effectively counter product-harm misinformation.

Lastly, communication professionals can adopt proactive measures, such as providing transparent information and reinforcing consistent messaging about product or service quality. These strategies can strengthen corporate associations and trust, making companies more resilient to the impact of product-harm misinformation.

By implementing these insights, communication professionals can convert potential threats from product-harm misinformation into opportunities by fostering media literacy, transparent communication and proactive management of information on social media platforms.

Companies can use these findings to plan better ways to handle false information. The study suggests that companies should be ready to deal with this problem and should listen carefully to what people are saying. They should also try to build strong relationships with their customers to make them trust the company more.

This post was originally published in NC State News.