The UK has announced a surprise general election on June 8th. With only seven weeks to campaign the prospect of plenty of ‘fake news’ is certain. But, how can you spot what’s fake and what’s not and why does it matter?
Fake news is nothing new. History abounds with examples of bending the truth for material gain, aka lying, or flexing the truth for political gain, aka propaganda. One of the earliest recorded examples is the use of fake news by Octavian against Marc Anthony which started the final war of the Roman Republic (32 BC to 30 BC). There were many parallels with the elections of today. On one side was Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, on the other Marc Anthony backed by Cleopatra! Instead of Twitter, Octavian used short slogans written on coins that denigrated Anthony for being a puppet of Egypt, disloyal to Rome, a philanderer and a drunk. The vicious propaganda campaign culminated in the reading of a will purported to belong to Anthony to the Senate House that concluded with Anthony being declared a traitor and war declared on Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt.
History has a habit of repeating itself, as we saw last year in the US. But this time around it’s become almost impossible to escape fake news. Social media ensures that fake news is spread faster than ever and has a continually increasing impact on the world.
Analysis by BuzzFeed News identified the top performing fake news story on Facebook in 2016 as “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide”. Published by a fake news site created to resemble ABC News, it garnered over 2.1 million shares, comments and reactions in just two months.
Even worse, during the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from 19 major news outlets combined! Research by BuzzFeed amongst over 3,000 US adults found that fake news headlines fooled American adults about 75% of the time, with those citing Facebook as their major source of news more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who don’t.
According to Michael P. Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, “the internet is both the world’s best fact checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time”.
With less than two months before the UK general election, the tight timeframe will necessitate digital as the primary channel of choice; it offers a quicker turnaround, greater flexibility and potentially greater impact if it goes viral.
There are five categories collectively referred to as fake news. Some of which are actually fake (disinformation), others down to human error or biases (misinformation). Either way they all have a very loose connection with the truth and basically sit on a continuum of intent to deceive.
1) Satire or Parody – sites such as the Onion or Daily Mash publish fake news stories as humorous attempts to satirise the media, but have the potential to fool when shared out of context.
2) Misleading news that’s sort of true but used in the wrong context – selectively chosen real facts that are reported to gain headlines, but tend to be a misinterpretation of scientific research.
3) Sloppy reporting that fits an agenda – news that contains some grains of truth that are not fully verified, which are used to support a certain position or view.
4) Misleading news that’s not based on facts, but supports an on-going narrative – news where there is no established baseline for truth, often where ideologies or opinions clash and unconscious biases come into play. Conspiracy theories tend to fall here!
5) Intentionally deceptive – news that has been fabricated deliberately to either make money through number of clicks, or to cause confusion or discontent or as sensationalist propaganda. These stories tend to be distributed through imposter news sites designed to look like ‘real’ news brands, or through fake news sites. They often employ videos and graphic images that have been manipulated in some way.
Why does it matter to brands? It’s prudent if we’re all able to recognise what’s fake and what’s not. Certainly for our own peace of mind, but more importantly it doesn’t take too much imagination to see a scenario where your brand becomes the victim. Unlike Marc Anthony, if you don’t want your reputation trashed it’s important that you are able to identify, differentiate and manage real and fake news.
We’ve already seen brands like Kellogg’s, Allstate and Warby Parker get an unexpected Christmas present in the form of their customers objecting to programmatic ad placements on Breitbart.com, an US ultra-right wing site with a history of disseminating fake news. Kellogg’s in particular saw its social media sentiment fall by 75% and its share price drop after Breitbart took umbrage at them pulling their ads, and started their own campaign #DumpKelloggs.
The spread of blatantly false information about PepsiCo, including fake quotes from the CEO, saw their stock price fall by 3.75% immediately and remain depressed for some time after. New Balance had its brand message taken out of context and ended up flat bang in the middle of the deeply divisive US presidential election, being hated by both sides!
In February, a number of household brands, universities and charities were discovered by The Times newspaper to be unintentionally funding terrorism, white supremacists, pornography and other hate sites after their adverts were found to have been placed on their websites and next to their YouTube propaganda videos.
What makes a news story fake? Firstly, it can’t actually be verified. It either doesn’t contain any links to its sources, or if there are links they stay within the domain or send you to articles that aren’t relevant. These stories tend to play on your emotions; they make you angry, happy or scared.
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the global voice of the library and information profession, has produced a handy infographic which outlines eight simple steps to determine the verifiability of a news story.
All of which are straightforward bar one. We’re drawn to news stories and to news sites that reinforce the way we see the world, how we feel about certain issues, and our existing prejudices. We shut out all other voices. We have tunnel vision. Our feeds just echo our own messages back to us. Fake news plays on this very bias.
For those eligible to vote in the upcoming UK election, please check that for the next seven weeks the news stories you share are based on facts, rather than sharing them because they support one side of the argument or your own pre-existing political beliefs. Otherwise, quite frankly, it’s going to be a very long seven weeks!
Brands should take responsibility for what they can control, and persuade publishers to look at the bigger picture and not just incentivise reach. They need to be vigilant and on top of where their content is being placed. Media brands need to put reclaiming and maintaining consumer trust at the top of their agenda. Both should ensure that they always tell the truth, know and understand their audiences, have a rock solid reputation, and a loyal customer base ready to defend them!
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