From the Pope supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (he didn’t), to Canada flinging open its borders to Trump-hating Americans (it hasn’t) to Donald Trump claiming Republican supporters were the ‘dumbest’ (he never said it), fake news is endemic.
And while the utterances, alleged and otherwise, of the 45th President of the USA have rather dominated the fake news agenda, false stories about celebrities, businesses and events have proliferated so much that even the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has unveiled a plan to tackle them.
In an open letter to mark his creation’s 28th anniversary last week, Sir Tim said he wanted to combat the misuse of personal data which, he claims, creates ‘a chilling effect on free speech’ and he called for stronger regulation of what he described as ‘unethical’ political adverts. “The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire,” he said.
These wildfire stories have included dark allegations about a pizza joint in Washington DC, the alleged ‘leaking’ of the 2017 Glastonbury line-up, and various outlandish claims about ISIS, immigrants and celebrities.
Some of these fake news stories have undoubtedly been invented for the purpose of swaying voters during elections. But most fake news is published in order to make money for the people that created it.
How? It couldn’t be simpler; the more sensational or interesting an online story appears to be, the more people will click onto it and then share it.
This results in more views for the adverts that may run alongside it on websites (and therefore more money for the website’s owners who are paid per click or view), or shares for the Facebook site’s creators, translating into more advertising revenue as page traffic increases.
Sometimes social media profiles that have generated a large number of followers through fake news or other content (such as “like this post if you hate cancer” type content) are then sold on to unscrupulous companies which want to cash on the audience they have amassed.
A recent investigation by Channel 4 News tracked down a number of fake news merchants to the small town of Veles in Macedonia, in the Balkans, where teens were reported to be making ‘thousands of euros’ a day, peddling the stuff.
But sites are being discovered all over the world although few appear to be based in the UK. According to BuzzFeed News the reason for this is because: ‘traditional British news outlets are already incredibly adept at filling the market with highly partisan news stories that stretch the truth to its limits’.
That hasn’t stopped a probe by the UK’s Culture Media and Sport Committee, and investigations in other countries, concerned about the quality of news that is being disseminated.
It also hasn’t stopped the concept of fake news itself being hijacked. In the ‘post-truth world’ – meaning one where debate is increasingly framed by emotion, not facts, in other words, what people feel – the charge of fake news has been levelled at journalists who have made mistakes in their reporting, without any intention to deceive.
And politicians uncomfortable with statements or questions they don’t agree with have tried to claim that what’s being said is fake news. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently accused the BBC of reporting ‘fake news’ when challenged about rumours which claimed he had considered resigning.
Fake or break
By this point, however, you may be wondering what fake news has got to do with you. If you never go on social media, ‘like’ or share Facebook posts and stories, if you aren’t a US citizen (fake news was thought to have played a part in voting patterns) and if you don’t own shares (whose values can be affected by false rumours and fake news), possibly nothing.
But it’s unlikely to go away and will quite possibly get worse – although Facebook is looking to flag stories with questionable legitimacy. Because these days we all consume our information differently, across multi-platforms and umpteen channels, it’s simply no good to pooh-pooh social media as unimportant.
We all want our news – big, small sometimes insignificant – but never fake – to appear in and on trusted sources.
We want readers and people coming across our information on the internet to feel that it’s news they can trust and can confidently share.
So how do we do that? Take shared responsibility. We are all influencers within our own networks and we should only promote or share stories known to be true and from responsible sources. This shouldn’t mean that satirists and comedians should stop having fun bending, questioning, challenging truths. But that’s not the same things as delivering a piece of fake content as real news.
It may sound controversial – but perhaps we should all pay for the journalism we value.
Graeme Patfield is a former journalist and news editor with 20 years’ experience in newspapers. He now has a strong specialism in strategic online and social media.
To speak with Graeme about strategic public relations for your business or organisation call 01329 822866.