Fake news is bad for business, here’s why

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This month it almost feels as though people have been talking more about the things that haven’t actually happened, but we’re told have, than the things that actually have happened. It’s a baffling predicament, even more confusing than that sentence.

So what do we believe? Was Trump’s inaugural actually the best attended since Nixon’s first, or the worst? Did he even win the election, or was it a sudden influx of fabricated stories, posted by Russians, aided by hackers? Is Myanmar on the verge of genocidal civil war again, or is everything actually A-OK? Are alternative facts really facts, from an alternative perspective, or is it factually impossible for real facts to depend on point of view?

 

 

So what actually is fake news?

Everyone’s favourite oracle, Google, defines it in the simplest terms- hoax stories and disinformation, disguised as real fact, which has either the goal of propaganda or simply causing confusion and distrust. It is not satire, and by nature satire should be easy to distinguish.

Fake news relies on social media for amplification- taking advantage of the ‘share first, read later’ culture of online stories. Tech firms have already received orders on ‘fake news’, and their responsibility for shutting it down, as this story from the Financial Times, published this week, shows, with the EU’s digital single market commissioner, Andrus Ansip, warning Facebook and other social media companies they must take a stronger stance against fake news or face action from Brussels.

To paraphrase Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin, it’s a shrubbery maze, and at the centre of it all is uncertainty. The most alarming outcome of this is that all news threatens to be discredited, questioned to within an inch of its believability, and, potentially, written off for fear it contains some agenda or other. We risk believing that everything is looking to promote one standpoint, neutrality has been drowned in a stormy sea of covert salesmanship.

Of course there are counterpoints to this- proof that the media and social media  are able to correctly inform people. Trinity Mirror’s rather interesting Perspecs app gives you three different views on key media stories from the group’s stable of newspapers and websites, and beyond. And readers may be able to cast much-needed doubt on the validity of stories, so future audiences consume through a lens of, understanding about concerns over legitimacy, encouraging them to investigate fully before buying the party line. Social media plays a huge part in boosting our capacity to do this, spreading the truth and exposing inaccuracies and lies.

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So who is behind all this fakery? The U.S. government cited a ‘Macedonian gold rush’ in 2015, where the town of Valdes, average annual income $4,600, saw a sudden boom in adolescents making quick bucks from reporting falsities. Russia is home to the Internet Research Agency, an organisation with a proven track record of hiring thousands of bloggers and giving them the job of making up stories.

Yet it goes much further than this, with fake news sites based in every corner of the globe. Alarmingly, many are difficult to identify, with ABCNews.com.co, and Bloomburg.ma just two examples of a ‘hiding in plain sight’ policy, using familiar sounding domain names to mask illegitimacy. This article on The Daily Beast gives a great insight into one person who was involved in these URLs, their rationale and reasons why.

But what does this mean for brands? Earlier this month, business news bible Forbes ran with the opinion that ‘fake news could be just what brands needed’. Not quite as terrifying as it sounds, the overall argument is that, rather than fake news sites cannibalizing the advertising revenue of legitimate publishers, anyone with half a brain cell can work out what is false and what is likely the truth, meaning websites publishing the latter will rise to the top, along with their advertising worth.

There is a problem, though, and it comes down to the fundamentals of online advertising, and how the system works. Algorithms place online adverts on websites based on the reader’s internet history. Hence Chrysler Automobiles having a commercial next to a story about Yoko Ono’s supposed affair with Hillary Clinton in the 1970s, which appeared on notorious fake news outlet World News Daily Report. Chrysler obviously didn’t want this, didn’t directly make it happen, but has, in effect, funded the fake news machine.

Worse still, there’s very little that can be done at the moment to stop this from happening. Or at least this is true from the perspective of the advertising brand. Less so the ad-tech firms responsible for making those commercials appear.

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“Maybe it’s true they didn’t know. Maybe it’s true they didn’t care… …but it’s not fair going forward for that ad company to say they still don’t know,” Dan Greenberg, chief exec of Sharethrough Inc, an ad placing specialist, wrote in a recent blog on the subject of big business inadvertently funding fake news.

The potential fallout for brands is enormous. Whilst it’s true that most people are not likely to remember which story or website they saw an advert on, even when they remember the advert, some people will, or at least over time brands can become associated with specific websites.

Even more worrying for brands is the possibility of a fake news attack – much like a social media attack. Those brands that have been targeted  by political and pressure groups are perhaps the most at risk but nevertheless, comms expert Arik Hanson still sees the problem is big enough for all firms to prepare for the possibility of a fake news attack. This basically entails mass postings to walls and news feeds at a rate which is impossible to keep up with. Hence this post advising on how to respond, which includes using strong relationships with journalists, executive LinkedIn contacts and more.

The ongoing disintegration of our faith in the media and news has catastrophic consequences for public relations. PR is about getting names in stories- or at least it is on a base level. It is proven to be more persuasive than advertising alone, simply because people trust expert editorial opinion. If there is no trust left in editorial, then how can PR have any value, even when hits appear in credible sources? Given the difficulties traditional advertising faces- the public growing immune- industries can ill afford to lose another means of winning over that elusive audience.

Unlike fake news, you can trust Smoking Gun’s opinions and expertise, hence so many people reading our January series of brand help guides and best practice tips- from social media trends to consumer predictions, Snapchat for brands to effective Facebook posts.

Looking for more advice on PR, social media, and marketing? Why not get in contact or submit a brief to inject a little ingeniousness into your brand.

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