How to handle misinformation when engaging communities

Wil Wylie • 5 min read

Community engagement often address controversial topics, which can evoke a great deal of emotion in people’s responses. These responses can sadly result in ‘fear campaigns’, that aim to mislead and misinform by spreading false information or linking one topic to another, unrelated issue.

In no time at all, misunderstanding can be widespread. This can cause a community to lose trust in a project or organisation, even before the start of the official engagement campaign. Misinformation can result in projects being delayed, and attention being diverted from genuine issues by enraged, misled objectors. 

However, there are steps that can be taken to minimise and manage misinformation.

Monitor social media closely

It’s important that social media platforms be continuously monitored during community engagement programs. Social media provides a sort of early warning system for issues that could emerge, and gives you the ability to assess public attitudes.

If misinformation is found, it’s important to tackle it straight away so that it can’t derail the project. Ideally, you should try and contact the person or people spreading the misinformation and attempt to strike up a relationship.

Ask to meet them in person to discuss any issues and respond to their questions. Of course, social media does not always make direct contact possible. If you can’t contact the person or group responsible for spreading false messages, address the misinformation by clearly explaining the facts to the public.

Set accurate expectations from the beginning

The best way to avoid the spread of misinformation is to set correct expectations at the very start. It’s important to disseminate easy-to-access and easy-to-read factual information on the project at its conception, and at key points during its implementation. In this way, you will manage misinformation, establish trust within a community by being forthcoming about the project and, essentially, bring the community with you throughout the process.

This information should include the chief outcomes of the project, the ways in which the community can participate in decision-making and details on when formal comments from the public will be sought.

Importantly, any community engagement campaign must highlight important issues, so it’s clear what feedback you’re looking for. It must also identify any non-negotiable aspects of the project. If key issues are emphasised, the campaign will stay on-topic and you’ll elicit constructive comments rather than off-topic, unproductive input.

Take a combined online and offline approach

Finally, to maximise your chances of successfully managing misinformation, you should utilise a wide variety of online and offline engagement tools. This may include purpose-built engagement and social media platforms.

Online engagement tools will allow you to reach a wider audience and encourage more participation. However, there’s still very much a place for offline engagement activities. In fact, a Waterloo University study in Canada found that face-to-face requests to fill out a survey were 34 times more likely to result in participation that email requests.

Never underestimate the power of meeting with people in person and having face-to-face conversations. This personal connection facilitates the establishment of trusting relationships and ensures that the community doesn’t dismiss you as an anonymous bureaucrat.

Summary

Social media’s increasing popularity has enabled people to stay more informed about developments in their community than ever before. Yet, it’s also a key tool used to facilitate the spread of misinformation. Successful execution of your community engagement campaign hinges on effectively managing misinformation, by:

  • Monitoring public attitudes on social media
  • Setting expectations from the beginning
  • Using online and offline engagement techniques.

Most importantly, be available and open to feedback from your community. When you give people the chance to comment on facts, you’ll drive a constructive discussion on important issues.

Community engagement is incredibly valuable. As engagement specialists, Plural can help you design a campaign that will effectively deliver accurate messaging, and allow for misinformation management. Reach out to see how we can help you.

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