6 min read

The Fake News Kung Fu

The Fake News Kung Fu
The Fake News Kung Fu by Dr. Nicole Matejic.

Just like the Chinese Martial Art of Kung Fu, dealing with fake news requires study, learning, practice, patience, energy and time.

Fake news does not happen by accident.

Fake news – or the deliberate spread of false information, is a strategy.

So, it should come as no surprise that to win at fake news, organisations need to be planned, prepared, knowledgeable and practiced. No-one can wing it in a fake news stoush and expect to be successful because your adversary has planned, prepared, learned and practiced their dark art with such frequency it could be called an occupation.

While opportunistic in nature, the ways in which fake news are created and quickly deployed rest solidly on the capabilities of skilled operators with the tools – and often budget, at their disposal to create online mischief that bleeds into traditional media. In the noxious ad-tech market we find ourselves part of, the clickbait economy runs overtime to amplify stories and content that sell “news.” Many well-known and trusted traditional and online mastheads have clear biases in how they frame and report specific stories which add to the confusion many organisations feel when they become the subject of hoax or fake news reporting.  

Sometimes political in nature, at times based in hate, sexism, homophobia or bigotry – fake news’ underlying strategy is to cause your organisation harm. Lending from the military information operations term where those operations are designed to create effects, in the civilian sector these effects could include impacting your decision making, including in ways that are predictable; the diversion of time, resources and money. Fake news may also be engineered to harm your reputation, make a crisis worse and more prolonged, or to create long term economic impacts.  

But fake news doesn’t have to create such effects. Organisations can, with some preparation, planning knowledge and training – learn to fight in the fake news ring, with a few lessons from Kung Fu to get you into fighting shape.

5 Kung Fu styles for dealing with Fake News campaigns:

1. Bao Quan (Leopard Kung Fu): aggressive speed and agility to defeat your opponents

Being prepared for fake news is half the battle won. You already know your organisation’s most likely risks and pain points; and can wargame the likely narratives that will arise. Having a set of broad ranging contingency talking points and a media release ready to go means you only have one thing to focus on when the crisis occurs: aggressive speed and agility in getting out in front of the fake narrative to correct the facts and shut the diversion down.  

Be quick on the socials, leverage traditional media and amplify your messages as broadly as you can using both organic networks and paid-posting solutions. Get your organisational talking-heads talking to anyone who will listen. Leverage key stakeholder relationships to get their talking-heads talking too. By packing a single, well coordinated punch with your organisation’s message, you can quickly shut down misinformation campaigns before they gather momentum.

As well as packing a solid rebuttal punch, this approach doubles as a sound reassurance piece with your audience and stakeholders.  

2. Praying Mantis Kung Fu: redirection, joint manipulation, pressure point attacks and trapping techniques

There are situations where redirecting the fake news narrative back onto the aggressor can work in your favour. To be able to deliver this type of back hander, you must be certain – and your audience must be able to reach the same reasonable conclusion of their own accord, of who or what is behind the fake news play. Sometimes this is clearly evident, at other times the agitator is more covert.

If you can’t catch them out publicly, you can still catch their misinformation out by confronting both their narrative and the rationale behind it. Now is the time to confront and call out racism, hate, bigotry and misogyny. Don’t hold any punches in getting to the core of the issue – but remain the sane person in the room by employing plain speak, logic and rationale.

By taking a strategic approach to the agitator or their narrative you put pressure on their ability to continue their campaign – turning their intent at causing you grief into an own-goal headache of their own making. You can also create effects for them. If the fake news campaign is well resourced and funded, this tactic will quickly force your adversary to show their hand as they ramp up the rhetoric and spend.

If you find a sudden uptick in rhetoric after your Praying Mantis Kung Fu moves, you need to ascertain if the fight is worth having or if you can wait them out having already delivered a blow that created an effect on them. If your message delivery was sound, quick and well received refusing to engage further puts further pressure on them to either continue their now seemingly unhinged rants or disengage.

3. Baji Quan: explosive short range power elbow and shoulder strikes

The trick in responding to fake news is to shut it down quickly but without being drawn into a prolonged narrative vs narrative offensive. Short range, explosive power strikes Kung Fu style can help you with this change in strategic mindset. In delivering your correction to the narrative with an explosive strike you must be able to then walk back from the fight and take the time to do the analysis work to evaluate your impact and next move – if there is one.

This isn’t an easy action for many organisational leaders to take as they feel the need to continue to remain engaged in the fight. Think of it as a strategic pause. You can always choose to respond at a future time of your own choosing. Your adversary doesn’t make your schedule, nor do they dictate the terms of your engagements – unless you let them.

Walking back from the fight has the added benefit of leaving your adversary throwing punches into the air like a mad goose – letting them have the spotlight while doing so will only help solidify your position.

4. Zui Quan (Drunken Fist) confuse opponents to deliver devastating counter attacks

This strategy is particularly effective if your opponent is trying to call you out for something you did or didn’t do. Quickly admitting to the allegations put forth when you are at fault is one of the quickest ways to shut the narrative down. Agitators throwing allegations at your organisation have wargamed your likely responses and will not count on you falling on your sword quickly and countering with a genuine redemption narrative. You can move audiences on very quickly in such circumstances and maintain some semblance of trust. While its always preferable to break your own bad news, when that opportunity has passed you still have the ability to quickly manage the situation – but time is of the essence.  

In the case of a false allegation, quickly bringing evidence to light that proves your innocence has the same effect, as well as turning the tables on the agitator who is left to explain their motives and actions.  

While most people will avoid conflict wherever possible, they also assume others will do the same. Understanding human behaviour and decision-making pathways in such circumstances gives you the element of surprise. If your audience expects you to spin platitudes amid a coverup, doing the opposite surprises them into a more conciliatory appreciation of the situation because it humanises it quickly. It is hard to keep denigrating an organisation or individual who has already apologised and taken appropriate actions in authentic acts of contrition.

5.  Hou Quan (Monkey Kung Fu): unorthodox acrobatic style to disorient and attack opponents from unusual angles and positions

Much like the Zui Quan (Drunken fist) being unpredictable in scenarios when people expect a certain level of apathy or disingenuous behaviour brings an often refreshing perspective and level of human authenticity to the fight.

Brutal honesty and sincere apologies surprise people because we are conditioned not to show weakness. The truth is often your best defence against fake news – as uncomfortable as it may be – the unorthodox approach of using it to your advantage gives you the element of strategic surprise. But you need to pull this move quickly at the onset of your fake news drama for it to work. Your organisation can’t spin doctor your way into the fold and then decide to tell the truth and expect it to be well received. Disingenuous handling of responses to outrage only provide more ammunition for the fake news agitatgor.

Fighting fake news isn’t a game of propaganda one upmanship. As information researcher Alicia Wanless points out “if you want to win hearts and minds, avoid denigrating them first.”

Fake news is a long game. Adversaries will have invested in generating stories and content over time to build up an online library for day zero attacks to make them seem more legitimate. This gives organisations the ability to head off the risk of a fake news campaign being run against them by employing social listening and online monitoring that will detect these early rumblings.

By making your organisation a hard target with planning, preparedness and practice at winning the game of fake news, you can successfully have your organisation’s voice heard when fiction is being peddled over facts.

But just like a Kung Fu master, you must study, learn, practice, have patience, energy and time.