How the Fake News Problem Affects Social Media Marketing

Suddenly, your brand hits the trending topics on Facebook or Twitter. You panic and click on it quickly …to find out that it’s a “news item” you know didn’t happen. Your brand has fallen victim to fake news. While it might look harmless at first, a fake news article can cause a lot of problems.

The problem of fake news on social media has grown from a nuisance into something that can do a lot of damage. Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg on down is scrambling to deal with it. How can you protect your brand from fake news and deal with the problem? Read on to find out.

A history of fake news

The pre-internet days

Fake news has been present since the introduction of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439. The rapid growth of mass media during the centuries saw fake news grow quickly. The first major problem was in 1898, after an explosion destroyed the US battleship Maine in Cuba. Newspapers began saying that the Spanish government was behind the incident with little evidence. This eventually lead to the Spanish-American war.

The emergence of broadcasting in the 20th century helped shape a more objective approach to journalism. Broadcasters and news organizations began to embrace a code of ethics to help them ensure the quality of their reporting. But that did not necessarily mean the end of fake news.

The rise of fake news on the Internet

The growth of the Internet helps people get information faster. With just one click, they can access thousands of news sites in seconds. Fake news has exploded because of this.

Email was one of the earliest ways fake news spread online. Pranksters and scammers sent made up stories to unsuspecting individuals in the hopes of taking advantage of them. Some of the most well-known of these email hoaxes include celebrity deaths, Mars moving closer to Earth, and Microsoft buying Firefox.

fake news on facebook

While these early instances of fake news online were mostly annoyances, the emergence of Google and Facebook as major Internet powers steered the issue into a new direction. The algorithms used by these two for determining rankings in their search results for trending news did not account for the accuracy and objectivity of the information in sites. This has lead to some sites becoming less concerned with both in their bid to dominate the search results.

2016: the year fake news gripped social media

Despite fake news being present on the Internet ever since its early years, there was little public concern about the matter. That is until 2016 came along.

The US Presidential elections that occurred during that year are considered as one of the most significant events displaying the impact of fake news. Then Republican candidate, and now President, Donald Trump was accused by various groups of propagating fake news in favor of himself during the campaign period. Such included false reports of the Pope allegedly endorsing him:

It was further speculated that such made up stories influenced the results of the elections.

It was not just in politics, though, as countless other fake stories swamped Facebook and other social media sites. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially called the issue of a fake news epidemic on the site as a “crazy idea”, but the company eventually relented and said that they are working to combat the problem.

How fake news influences social media marketing

Because of their rampant spread in social media, fake news has become notorious. It’s not only regular users who are worried. Marketers also raised concerns about the impact of fake news on their trade.

Fake news as profit drivers

Propaganda is often cited as one of the common reasons for the spread of these made up stories. Various interest groups use them to try and swing public opinion to their favor. But there is a more fundamental reasoning behind them. It’s because they sell.

Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser notes that the manufacture and spread of fake news have become a very profitable “online business” in recent years. Ohlheiser reveals that a single fake news creator can earn as much as $10,000 a month from just a handful of “stories”. You don’t even have to be professional “newsmaker” to earn from it. Even teenagers can turn in large profits, as shown by the reveal of such operations in Macedonia being run by youngster targeting Trump supporters, one site of which is shown below.

fake news website

All of these profits are thanks to the high level of engagement delivered by these. Each fake news article is often viewed, shared, and commented thousands of times by users online. This, in turn, attracts plenty of ads to the website creating them, either through Adsense or direct deals.

What the fake news problem tells about social media marketing

While it is definitely not something to celebrate, the “success” of fake news online has offered important insights about the current social media marketing landscape.

Becoming viral matters even more now

The spread of fake news online emphasized just how important knowing how to go viral is today. Social Media HQ particularly highlights the concept of “trend velocity”, or how fast trends get picked up and spread. Once a certain piece of content (including fake news) hits a particular trend velocity, it becomes viral and propagates even without external help.

Knowing your audience isn’t just about demographics

In fact, it is as much psychology as it is statistics. By understanding the particular shared biases your audience have, you can create content that will easily catch their attention. This plays a big role in the spread of viral content, as people are more willing to share content that is in line with their particular beliefs.

Social echo chambers are vital to the spread of viral content

Computer science and informatics professor Filippo Menczer notes in this article that the initial spread of fake news occurs within so-called social echo chambers. These are closed social groups in which all the members share the same beliefs, thus magnifying each member’s own personal opinion. By tapping into these echo chambers, marketers can also magnify their own messages and increase their spread.

Headlines are powerful tools

Forbes’ Jayson DeMers reveals that around 59 percent of all the articles shared on social media are not clicked at all. Instead, people seeing the link often rely only on the headline to get a gist of what the article is supposed to be. A strong headline can become as effective in spreading content even if the content itself is not.

Engagement is even more essential

The main issue raised about fake news centers around its spread on Facebook. This alone highlights the impact of the site on the social media marketing. And it isn’t just about its sheer size and reach. Unlike Google’s search algorithm, which focuses more on the “authority” of links, Facebooks’ emphasizes the level of engagement more. A story that acquires a high level of engagement will be able to rank high in the search results.

How fake news can damage your marketing efforts

Damaging your brand’s online reputation is the biggest problem fake news can bring to your marketing efforts. This is particularly difficult due to how fast these made-up stories spread. By the time you catch on and mount your response, it has already gained a lot of ground and changed perceptions of your company. Trying to dispel the negative image created by these fake stories can be hard. This is in large part due to:

  • The strong followings created by social echo chambers. As these feed into that following’s biases, they become deeply entrenched into its collective consciousness.
  • B2C’s Sally Falkow also notes that the spread of fake news has resulted in a general distrust of media. This, in turn, gives you less room to defend your brand.
  • Meanwhile, Kissmetrics point out that nothing dies on social media. Even if you do manage to deal with the initial onslaught of negative publicity brought about by fake news, these articles remain online.

There is always the looming prospect of someone rediscovering and spreading them anew and making you deal with the same problem again.

The offline effects of fake news

If you think that fake news stays online, then you are in for a surprise. Manufactured news on social media can eventually spread to the offline world. And this is where it becomes even more damaging.

That was what pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong found out in 2016 when it became the subject of a fake news story that initially circulated on social media. The story purported that the restaurant was a front for a sex trafficking ring allegedly run by Democrats. While there was no solid physical evidence to back the claims, they were embraced and spread further by eager conspiracy theorists.

The situation got worse when people who believed the story began harassing and making threatening phone calls to the restaurant’s staff. Surrounding businesses and personalities that were associated with Comet Ping Pong also became targets for such attacks. The controversy culminated in a shooting incident at the restaurant committed by a man who claimed he was just there to investigate the claims.

The whole PizzaGate controversy (as it was known), served as one of the most disturbing demonstrations of what can happen once fake news spills over from the Internet to the larger offline world. While your brand will hopefully not encounter such aggression, the spread of fake news offline can still result in a negative impact to your business. Comet Ping Pong itself likely suffered a significant drop in sales as the continued harassment drove away customers.

Dealing with fake news

What the internet companies are doing about it

With Facebook being at the heart of the whole controversy, all eyes are on the company to act. Facebook responded by announcing in December that it will begin flagging suspected fake news. The company said that it is seeking the help of users and third-party fact checkers in identifying and tagging these. The organizations that have joined the fact-checking effort include:

  • ABC News
  • The Associate Press
  • Snopes
  • Politifact
  • FactCheck.org

Facebook has said that it is seeking to get more organizations to join the initiative.

Under its planned strategy, users can report stories as fake. If enough reports about it are made, the story will be sent for review. In case the story did not pass the review criteria, it will be publicly marked as “disputed.” Users who wish to still share the story will be given a warning about its contested nature.

Google also announced its plans for dealing with fake news. The search engine giant said that it will be making policy changes to block fake news websites from making money through AdSense. The company said that its goal is to cut off the primary incentive driving the rise of these kinds of sites.

fake newspaperThe policy changes work with other measures that the company has undertaken to deal with the problem:

  • Manually reviewing website content
  • Demoting fake news websites in the search rankings
  • Marking stories that have passed fact-checking by independent reviewers.
  • Funding fact-checking organizations

Google says that these are intended to create an effective filter to help weed out fake news stories from the search results.

What to do if your brand falls victim to paid news

While the Internet companies have stepped up their campaign against the spread of fake news, that doesn’t mean they will go away anytime soon. Here are some steps your brand can take deal with fake news:

  • Make a quick, but well-thought response: Be honest and explain clearly what the truth about the purported news is. You also need to deliver your response at the right time to avoid further fuelling speculations.
  • Create a positive atmosphere: A negative fake story can result in a drop in your social media following. Use bought followers from us to counter this and maintain your image. You can also use such services to help flood social media with positive messages about your brand using a re-tweet package.
  • Mobilize employees as brand messengers: Your entire company should rally behind only one response to the crisis. Talk to your employees and explain how it matters to them to get them fully on board.
  • Make use of all the available channels: Mainstream media might have been heavily discredited by fake stories, but these still remain vital for combating the latter. Get your statement out on all the available channels to get maximum coverage.  

All of these will help you maintain your brand image in the midst of the crisis.

How to protect your brand from fake news

Until Internet companies can come up with a definite solution to the fake news problem, you face the prospect of falling prey to it. You need to be vigilant to ensure that your brand won’t end up in the headlines of these made-up stories.

  • Do regular searches for articles about your company: Even the more innocuous-looking piece can easily be turned into something more malevolent. Finding these early will give you time to devise a response to them should they go viral. Set up a Google Alerts for all mentions of your company.
  • See how your audience responds to fake news: Again, the earlier you see their response, the better you can mount a defence. There are tools you can use to see what type of content your target audience share and how they respond to it. This can be used to predict which content could turn into something toxic later on.
  • Use platforms that proactively protect your brand: While the internet giants themselves have unveiled plans on trying to deal with the problem, companies like AppNexus have already gone and taken more significant actions like cutting ads from sites identified promoting fake content.
  • Report fake news websites: Whether or not they have articles attacking your brand, you still need to do your part in combating their spread. By reporting websites that contain fake articles, you can also protect your audience from these.

While these moves will not always protect you from being victimized by fake news, they can safeguard you from them.

Protect your social media marketing efforts from fake news

Fake news being spread on social media can cause a lot of damage to brands due to their strong power to sway public opinion. As such, you should know how to effectively deal with them to protect your brand’s marketing efforts

  • Know what drives fake news: Financial incentives is considered to be the biggest driver of the spread of fake news. By understanding how perpetrators earn from these, you can find ways to block them from benefiting at your expense.
  • Understand how fake news spreads on social media: The current spread of fake news offers plenty of insights on social media marketing, which you can tap into for dealing with them.
  • Know the damage fake news can bring: By having a good idea of the effects these manufactured stories can bring, you can brace yourself and mount an effective damage control plan.
  • Have a good strategy to defend yourself: Your immediate and honest response is vital here. Make use of tools, such as bought followers, to maintain your brand’s positive image while combating the rumors.

Fake news won’t go away anytime soon. But, by following these steps, you can protect your brand from the damage they can cause.