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Post-truth: An online world of fake news and distorted views

By December 6, 2016 No Comments

Regardless of whether or not you make a point of staying well-versed politically, there’s no way you would have been able to avoid this year’s American election. The faces of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were everywhere, and their portraits were more often than not accompanied by a peculiar, contentious or downright outrageous news headline.

There’s no way you would have been able to avoid this year’s American election

This election will be remembered for many years to come, not only because the result came as something of a surprise, but also because the vast majority of battles were fought online. Both candidates were outspoken on their own social media channels, but it’s the impact fake news had upon the election’s outcome that academics will continue to debate in the years to come. Did fictional news help steer Trump to victory, or was Clinton always destined to be defeated?

Now, let’s get this out of the way early; this isn’t an article about Republicans or Democrats. We’re not here to be politically biased in any way, nor are we going to suggest that false news played a significant role in swaying voter opinion. What we are going to do, however, is dissect why false news exists, what its creators are hoping to achieve, and how phony articles have managed to gain prominence on social media sites.

Exploiting social media

If you’ve spent time on social media this year – particular Facebook – it’s likely you’ll have come across articles with headlines so bizarre or contentious that you can’t help but think they’re satirical. Pieces suggesting Pope Francis was backing Donald Trump for the American presidency, or that protesters were paid $3,500 to demonstrate at a Trump rally, are just two examples of stories that contained little to no truth, but were shared far and wide on social media.

Upon seeing these articles some people were intrigued, others outraged, while some just took the whole thing as a bit of a joke. Many of these people were only too happy to circulate the information, irrespective of their opinion. For the content creators, the outcome was the same regardless of who shared or why.

So why is this phenomenon of falsehoods flooding Facebook feeds?

Mark Zuckerberg’s social media sensation has approximately 1.6 billion users, and it’s quickly becoming the key place for many people to find the articles they want to read. Did you know that around 62% of American adults get their news from social media? Or that 66% of Facebook’s American audience admit the site is their go-to location for news?

Did you know that around 62% of American adults get their news from social media?

These statistics reveal just how powerful social media is; it’s a hub for news, social updates and personal communication, and it seems likely that it will only hold more sway going forward.

We’ve previously discussed the idea that social media could be changing our brains, and outlined why there is a thin line for businesses to walk when it comes to being respected on social media. We understand that social media can have positive and negative impacts depending on how it’s used, and we also realise that when it comes to posting, it pays for honourable companies to tread carefully. This is not, however, a consideration for fake news originators.

The danger with social media – and it’s a pretty major danger – is that it’s largely unregulated. There’s very little stopping people setting up websites that look like legitimate news sources and then populating them with stories that are completely made up. And, when embedded into a Facebook feed, it’s incredibly difficult to pick out fake sites, because all links look more or less the same.

The danger with social media – and it’s a pretty major danger – is that it’s largely unregulated

While newspapers and genuine media outlets have to adhere to stringent guidelines, fake news sites can pretty much post anything they want. They can lie, blaspheme, insult and harangue because, quite simply, they are unlikely to face any repercussions.

The false news menace

False news may seem like a curious trend, but the majority of people producing it have a key motivation. And, like most things in life, that motivation is money.

Most purveyors create clickbait headlines to make a quick buck from advertising revenues and, because they need as many people viewing their articles as possible, they are generally well written, well designed and closely resemble authentic news sites. The key difference is that they are produced by people with no interest in dishing out the truth.

Most purveyors create clickbait headlines to make a quick buck from advertising revenues

And while the most discerning of observers may be able to tell the difference between the real and the fake, many people don’t make such distinctions.

The genius of this new era of false news is that it appeals directly to audiences by telling them exactly what they want to hear. These articles aren’t being created to offer people something new; they’re produced to entice those with an established opinion. They’re written for people who are looking to justify a stance that is, more often than not, slightly controversial.

Creators of false news are gaining attention by pulling at heartstrings to such an extent that people are willing to share articles without first checking if the content is legitimate. It’s a clever tactic, and one that’s proving to be incredibly effective.

The genius of this new era of false news is that it appeals directly to audiences by telling them exactly what they want to hear

Social media essentially makes everyone a potential reporter. If a story resonates with enough people and vindicates an outlook they believe to be inherently true, they will do their bit to ensure that message spreads. Determining the article’s validity is, to the sharer, far less important than ensuring the ‘facts’ are seen by as many people as possible.

Authenticity and reputation

We often speak about the importance of authenticity. Whether it’s defining your employer brand or producing an article, speaking in a way that’s open and honest is absolutely essential. You want people to take you seriously and regard you as an authority, and it’s almost impossible to achieve those aims if you take liberties with the truth.

While fake news sites are doing what they do for money, rather than to gain a reputation as a reputable news source, the dramatic rise in counterfeit information could well result in an extensive diminishing of trust. With people likely to become far more cautious when it comes to the media they consume, they will eventually start to reassess the sources they view on a regular basis.

However, for trustworthy organisations, this should be regarded as a huge opportunity. Though many social media feeds are currently littered with news built on fiction, this is something that will not last. Articles with a firm basis in fact and rational opinion will ultimately win out, and those sites that cannot be trusted will, eventually, fall away. Producing work based on reality may not necessarily reap instantaneous rewards, but playing the long game is nearly always the most beneficial tactic.

Articles with a firm basis in fact and rational opinion will ultimately win out

The big hurdle that must first be overcome, however, is discovering how to discourage people from pushing out fake news articles, and how to ensure dependable articles are given the spotlight.

What’s the solution?

Despite initially appearing unwilling to accept that false news is a big issue, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has recently declared that he and his team are putting a lot of energy into tackling the problem. He has recognised that he has a responsibility, and should be doing everything in his power to minimise people’s exposure to stories designed to dupe.

The most effective solution, you’d think, would be to stop the posters gaining ad revenue. This is something that has been suggested by Fil Menczer, a professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University, who has spent the last few years studying the spread of misinformation on social media.

The most effective solution, you’d think, would be to stop the posters gaining ad revenue

However, though he believes the key is cutting off access to ad money, he remains uncertain about how this could be achieved. Speaking on the topic, he said: “What if it is a site with some real information and some fake news? It requires specialised knowledge and having humans (do it) doesn’t scale.”

So, with that in mind, is technology the answer? Should we pin our hopes on algorithmic solutions? Or should all Facebook pages masquerading as genuine news sites be forced to undergo some sort of verification test?

Establish yourself as a dependable supplier of information, and people will be drawn to your work again and again

The simple answer is that, at the time of writing, there’s no faultless answer. Some of the brightest minds in the world of tech and media are currently assessing all of the options at their disposal and, though they’re undoubtedly well on the way to coming up with a host of solutions, we’re not there yet. And you can bet your bottom dollar that while the fake news sites are still managing to accrue revenue, the false news pushers will be doing their damndest to stay one step ahead.

From a content marketer’s perspective, the answer is always the same; ensure everything you create is reliable, consistent and well written. Establish yourself as a dependable supplier of information, and people will be drawn to your work again and again. Play the long game, because that’s how you’ll achieve the biggest rewards.

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