Nonprofits Need to Avoid Spreading “Fake News”

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Authentically “fake” news—articles posted online that are completely fabricated or full of wildly misleading claims, typically from disreputable sources that are trying to generate traffic to their websites—is the sort of problem that nonprofits may be quick to dismiss as something they needn’t be concerned about. But a nonprofit that spreads fake news on its social media platforms risks tarnishing its reputation and creating unnecessary legal risks.

Every organization has a powerful incentive to have an active online presence. A good website, active social media accounts, and other strategies can help grow a nonprofit’s profile and reach new constituents. These efforts can be important for expanding the reach of a nonprofit’s services and can be vital for attracting donors.

At the same time, social media use can backfire. Sharing deliberately misleading articles through an organization’s official outlets can be harmful in a number of ways. It gives readers the impression that the organization is at best sloppy and at worst gullible or incompetent. It risks offending and alienating potential supporters. And in some cases it can attract the attention of malignant individuals who may target the organization for hacking and other cyberattacks.

One of the problems with fake news is that it can also create legal liability. If false information is knowingly spread about an individual or organization, they may have the option of suing for defamation or libel. This could arise for an organization that posts false information about a competing nonprofit, or particular individuals.

Avoiding the spread of fake news one of many good reasons a nonprofit should adopt a formal social media policy. Among other things, a policy can require responsible individuals to restrict “sharing” to articles from well-known sources, and to approach online information with a healthy dose of skepticism. A policy can also address what to do if the organization’s social media platform is accidentally used to spread fake news.

The Church Law Center of California assists secular and religious nonprofits with all matters of governance and organization. We are here to help your organization craft a social media policy to help manage online risk. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or through our contact page.

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