24 Nov 2016

Content In The Era Of Fake News

The spotlight has intensified on one of the few sectors of the publishing world to experience explosive growth recently: fake news.

“Fake news” used to be something people did to troll for reactions and clicks. Pick a B-list celebrity no longer in the limelight, preferably one that is likely to have been famous during your childhood.  Say you are saddened by their death on Twitter and Facebook. In case you want to have a try, I should warn you it will result in fewer friends and followers. But it will prove the effectiveness of fake news.

The current purveyors of fake news use the same principle. But they have gone to the extra effort of registering a domain on which to post bogus content. The existence of a “news” site, no matter poor,  provides enough credibility for people to share it.

In the past, these sites hid behind satire claims, but now even that pretence has gone. Fake news is a serious business. The people behind them aren’t in it for the small amount of joy gleaned from fooling their rapidly-reduced number of friends. They want clicks and shares, which through advertising, add up to money. Money that, when not burdened with costs beyond a laptop and the time it takes to make up stuff, is essentially free.

But fake news took a more sinister turn with the recent US election. Critics started asking whether it influenced the vote and if possibly, the motivation is about more than money. US news comedy program Full Frontal with Samantha Bee interviewed two anonymous Russian trolls who claimed that the Kremlin paid them to post comments on social media.  It was, they said because a Trump victory could stabilise the US.

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Google And Facebook Under Fire

The fake news furore accuses Facebook of being the main distribution platform.  Analysis by Buzzfeed suggests that in the final three months of the election, fake sites outperformed mainstream news in terms of Facebook engagement for the top 20 election stories.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg scoffed at the idea it affected the election but says the company will do more to stamp it out. This is new ground. Sharing a Facebook post full of lies to friends is exactly as much Facebook’s fault as Telstra is responsible for the content of SMS messages carried over its network between users.

Similarly, Google has felt the political wind change. Adsense policy now excludes misrepresentative content and aims to reduce fake news ads appearance on searches. They will also rename the “in the news” heading to “top stories” topical keyword searches.

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If Fake News Continues, Your Brand Is Fair Game

Fake news exploits more than just modern advertising and content distribution algorithms. It takes advantage of a loophole that politicians and leaders have exploited since time immemorial. Most people don’t think critically, especially if presented with “facts” that suit their current thinking.

What may have influenced a globally important election can certainly influence consumer purchasing decisions. You only have to look at the owners and staff of the Washington-based Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. A fake story falsely accused it of allowing Hillary Clinton to kidnap, molest and traffic children in the restaurant’s back room. Death threats via text and social media followed.

The endless iOS vs Android or Intel vs AMD debates could be fertile grounds for a fake news peddler looking for the next snack following the election feast. Brands have long worked with a media that stuck somewhat closely to the truth. They may soon have to interact with “media” that has no interest in co-operation and is virtually impossible to sue.

The future of social comms may move beyond its current, proactive and positive form. For major brands (or even table tennis-themed pizza shops) it may fulfill a more defensive purpose. It can help organisations control narratives around their brand and respond to misinformation in ways that politicians would struggle to replicate.

Social media’s ever-evolving role is fascinating. Just when it feels like we have got a handle on the basics, there’s a new hurdle. The ongoing challenges and opportunities it presents will reward those with adaptable policies and strong execution for years to come.

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