Water sector can do something about fake news

Results of joint impact study by KWR and water companies

Fake news is not new, but its impact in our post-fact society is growing steadily. How can the water sector best respond? Researchers from water companies and KWR have together studied the question and presented their findings in the animation below. Building trust, being transparent and communicating proactively are the keys.


Video – 01:12
Impactstudie Post-feitenmaatschappij met ondertiteling

Post-fact society

In the summer of 2017, water company representatives and KWR researchers together conducted a study into the impact of the post-fact society on the water sector. In this society (scientifically-grounded) truths are no longer the basis of news reports. There is no time to check the facts because everybody wants to be the first in publishing and expressing an opinion on the news.

Lower House

The impact study built upon the ‘post-fact society’ trend alert that KWR had earlier produced for the drinking water companies. This post-fact society is not a new phenomenon, but events surrounding Brexit and the Trump campaign have stimulated new interest in the subject. The new Minister of the Interior, Kajsa Ollongren, gives fake news a prominent place on the agenda and last week addressed the subject in a letter to the Dutch Lower House. This led to heated parliamentary debate with numerous mutual recriminations: every party is said to be guilty of inventing and spreading fake news.

Fake news is reinforced

Fake news develops in a context in which opinions all have an equivalent voice in the debate, whether they are well founded or not, or whether they are voiced by a small, marginal group or by respected experts. A number of relatively recent factors have contributed to bringing unprecedented attention to all these opinions:

  • The continuous 24-hour flow of news creates extreme competition between news organisations and journalists, who all want to be the first to momentarily control the news.
  • The different sides of a debate are given equal attention, even if they’re not all equally well substantiated, or backed by as many people, or equally well founded in fact. This produces a false equivalence.
  • The huge flow of reports in the social media strengthens the voice of false reports. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter mean that the task of spreading news reports is not limited to newsrooms and journalists: anyone with a social media account can themselves broadcast news to the world.
  • When people judge whether something is true or not, they frequently (unconsciously) favour facts that agree with beliefs they already hold, a phenomenon known as ‘motivated reasoning’. This is why making the facts available has less of an influence on opinion formation than we might like.

Water sector

That the water sector must also be alert to fake news and its effects is clear. For example, how can water companies operate smartly in the minefield of image management and (online) communications? The joint work of the researchers from the water sector and KWR offers three strategic recommendations:

  • Build trust in the sector, for example, by involving citizens more in operational management via citizen science (add link to explanation) and, in crisis situations, collaborate effectively with the other stakeholders in the sector.
  • Be transparent about how drinking water is produced. Consciously select the message, target-group and timing of your communications (controlled transparency).
  • Stay ahead of fake news by proactively communicating about subjects that are important to the water sector and in which it has expertise.

Post-Fact Society symposium on 12 September.