How Do You Combat Fake News? Don’t Do This…

This is the third post in Cheryl Snapp Conner’s new column series for LinkedIn. Follow this series to get my bi-weekly updates on crisis communications/PR.

I’ve always believed it to be true, but studies now prove it. When correcting a lie, don’t repeat it. 

Yes, this is counterintuitive. When you see a lie, your human reaction is to call it out and correct it. But as it turns out, the strategy often backfires. Repeating the lie calls more attention to it and makes it more familiar, leading readers to be more likely (not less) to believe that it’s true.

Some Days it Feels Like You Just Can’t Win

Reporters and bloggers often use the strategy of repeating a lie or a rumor to amp up the controversy factor in the stories they tell. They begin stories with statements like “In an effort to recover from its prior culture of harassment, Organization X today did XXX” (reported as if “prior culture of harassment” were a proven and acknowledged fact) before grudgingly reporting the positive news.

Tabloid style headlines imply false information is true to make their stories more spicy, notes a column in Psychology Today. They open with statements like “Mike Pence: Gay ConversionTherapy Saved My Marriage,” or “Election Night: Hillary Was Drunk, Got Physical With Mook and Podesta,” even though the actual story doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting the headline as fact. Or the headline asks an inflammatory question like “Did Barack Obama Oversee the Separation of 89,000 Children from their Parents?” Even when the article reports the assertion as fake, the idea is planted and continues to spread.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the “illusory truth effect.” Social media trolls use the strategy with abandon, and studies have shown that it works. For example, false stories are shared 70% more readily than true ones on Twitter.

Another study, at Yale, shows our brains have a harder time with statements that include a negation. The statement “John is not a criminal,” for example, leaves the suggestion in readers’ minds that perhaps John is, indeed, a criminal.

What Can You Do?

How can you combat this issue? For starters, avoid posting blogs or articles with negation in their titles. Don’t headline your story with “ACME is not a scam.” Instead, psychologists suggest, lead with facts. A headline like “ACME Achieves A+ Rating From the BBB” would be a better way to refute a negative rumor than to associate your name with the concept of “scam.” It is also a better way to tamp down the propensity of Google to initiate negative auto-suggestions for search such as “ACME scam,” and “ACME scandal,” etc.

An even more powerful strategy: Tell the truth first. Then identify the lie you’re correcting. Present your evidentiary facts and summarize by reiterating, once again, the conclusion of truth. “The facts in this situation are X. Some false reports have claimed Y, but here are five points of evidence that show the truth to be X.”

Some experts such as UC Berkeley Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff call this strategy the Truth Sandwich. You eliminate the power of fake news by beginning and ending your post with true statements to be sure they are the first and the last thing readers hear.

In summary, then. you really can combat fake news. But you need to do it with care.

More about me and SnappConner

I am a frequent speaker and author on issues of thought leadership and crisis PR. If you need more help from me or from our team, feel free to reach out to us at There is also a library of more than 600 of my columns available at We have some free resources you are welcome to download, and you can sign up for our bi-weekly Snappington Post while you’re there. You can also learn more about our thought leadership and content training and program by visiting