Denialism has become a central issue in our digitalized world. Rumors and false information can be spread much easier trough social media platforms than ever before and so have the potential to influence public opinions. Communicators have the task to identify these tactics and find suitable strategies to obviate misinformation and protect the company.
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Relevance of denialism
Denialism is a psychological defense mechanism in which people deny universally valid facts and truths. Denialists prefer radical and controversial ideas to generate research funding.
Although denialism isn’t a new phenomenon, it is more prevalent than ever before. Indeed, in times of high complexity and uncertainty, denialism tends to increase. Moreover, denialists can now spread their ideas faster and more easily on social media platforms and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. In fact, it has become clear that denialists are able to shape the public discourse, something which threatens the social consensus.
Characteristics of denialists
There are three characteristics that depict people who are particularly likely to deny scientific data and facts:
- Age: Older people are more likely to believe in conspiracy ideas and distrust established facts. Denialism is most prevalent among the 65-and-over group.
- Education: People with lower formal education are more likely than others to believe in conspiracy ideas.
- Origin: People with an immigrant background are more likely than others to believe that the world is being controlled by secret forces.
Denialist use different tactics to develop and sustain their worldview. Often these tactics go hand in hand:
How corporations can deal with Denialism
Denialism has become a confusing and increasingly complex issue – for society as a whole, but also for corporations. There are several reasons why denialism is a key trend to watch for corporate communications in 2021:
- The level of denialism: The denial of facts and evidence now affects almost all areas of society, politics, economics, and academia.
- Research gap in corporate communications: Denialism in the context of communication management is still largely unexplored.
- Companies as a target: In addition to politics and science, denialists are increasingly targeting companies and industries.
- Unpredictability: Denialists follow an irrational worldview. As a result, the phenomenon is difficult to grasp – especially for top managers in corporations who are mostly rational thinkers.
- Danger from all sides: As the number of denialists grow, so does the likelihood that employees might express denialist attitudes in internal meetings and impact organizational decisions.
How communication can fight denialism
Denialism will become a very important topic for communicators in the next few years. They must be able to understand denialism, explain it to others, and find suitable communication strategies.
"We can expect Corporate Communications to find better ways to deal with denialism."
Christof E. Ehrhart, Executive Vice President Corporate Communications & Governmental Affairs, Bosch
- Dealing with denialists: Denialists who take action against companies are surprisingly diverse and so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, according to experts, the most promising approach is to beat the opponent at their own game. This means not immediately jumping on conspiracy ideas as this will only strengthen them. What counts are facts, logic and proven arguments.
- Work of persuasion: Changing a denialist’s mind takes time and resources, and facts are needed to challenge the denialist’s constructed worldview. It is helpful to emphasize that information is incorrect without talking about conspiracy theories, to offer fact-based alternatives, and to explain one’s own view with demonstrative evidence.
- Protecting the company: One way of preventing attacks by denialists is to position a company appropriately in the public sphere. For example, a considered presentation of the CEO gives the company a face when confronting denialists. The same is true of positioning the company in public discourses, for instance by supporting public campaigns or activists. Similarly, organizing stakeholder dialogues can be helpful.
- Helping employees: An additional task for communications could be educating and helping employees. This could take the form of issuing guidelines on how to recognize and uncover conspiracy theories on the web. But it also means that public communication about the company and critical topics must be closely monitored.
Quick-Guide: How to identify Denialism
Key Facts about the 5 trends
- Denialism: Denialism has become a central issue in out digitalized world. Rumors and false information can be spread much easier trough social media platforms than ever before and so have the potential to influence public opinions.Communicators have the task to identify denialism and find suitable strategies to obviate misinformation and protect the company.
- Virtual Corporate Communications: Due to digitalization, new ways of communication, such as virtual formats, have become the new normal. This opens up several opportunities, but also challenges for communication departments. Topics such as remote leadership, digital collaboration and employee motivation show the importance of personal communication and thus the urgency of proper virtual formats.
- Sustainble Communications: Environmental Sustainability has become an important issue in society, but also for corporations. Thus, this topic has raising relevance for communication departments and communicator, who have to integrate sustainability in their strategic communcation.
- Digital Nudging: Digital nudging can support in leading the way towards effective virtual decision-making by employees throughout the organization. For communication leaders it is an opportunity to raise their profile within the company as experts on optimizing digital environments.
- Voice Interaction: The increase in voice-based searches might affect the visibility of any company’s public communication on search engines. In addition, Voice interactions allows corporate communications to reach out to stakeholders in a new way, and to position the company as an innovative brand.
- Sources & screening: First, information sources which provide relevant insights into the professional discourse in the areas of management, technology, and society were monitored and screened. These sources primarily include recent publications from scientific journals and conferences in the respective domains, but also selected newspapers (e.g., Economist Science and Technology), magazines (e.g., Harvard Business Review, Wired), social news sites (e.g., Reddit Science), blogs and websites (e.g., ReadWrite, The Next Web), whitepapers, and corporate trend reports.
- Trend profiles: Each potential trend was systematically documented in a trend profile consisting of a brief description and several criteria estimating the trend’s relevance to corporate communications. Specifically, we assessed the impact of the trend on the corporate communications function, processes and management.
- Scoring: Based on the criteria detailed in the trend profiles, a scoring method was developed that was used to rate each of the trends.
- Selection: These trends were first discussed among the Communications Trend Radar team during a workshop. Each team member then voted individually for the top trends in the areas of management, technology, and society. We proposed five trends for 2021 (depicted below) based on the outcome of this process.
- Reflection: These trends were examined further and later discussed with approximately 20 communication leaders during an online workshop in November 2020.
- Report: All trends were analyzed and described in more detail in our publication - the Communications Trend Radar
The Communications Trend Radar 2021 project was conducted by a research team of the Leipzig and the University of Duisburg-Essen.
from left to right:
- Ansgar Zerfass is Professor and Chair of Strategic Communication at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.
- Daniel Ziegele, M.A. is a research associate at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.
- Sünje Clausen, M.Sc. is a research associate at the chair of Professional Communication in Electronic Media/Social Media at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
- Florian Brachten, M.Sc. is a research associate at the chair of Professional Communication in Electronic Media/Social Media at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
- Stefan Stieglitz is Professor of Professional Communication in Electronic Media/Social Media at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.