How to spot fake news and what it means for media messaging
Fake news. It’s one of the biggest topics in modern communications as brands, media organisations and consumers come to terms with new world media and its impact on the way we receive and digest information.
The questions being asked are: How can you work out which stories are true, and which are false? Where should you place your messages if you want them to be believed? How can you become a trusted source?
For businesses wanting to grow their reputation and extend their market reach it can be baffling environment.
There’s a temptation to buy into the rhetoric that Generation Y and Z have no respect for traditional media and that a brand’s reputation should instead be put into the hands of influencers, vloggers and online peer reviews.
However, there is also an emerging picture which suggests these are the very engines which are driving fake news in the first place. For instance:
- Peer reviews have a big influence on reputation but can be easily faked, bought or edited.
- Clickbait stories appeal to our sensationalist and curious nature, and are therefore popular, but are often written irresponsibly without research or fact-checking.
- Being a ‘social media influencer’ has become a career. But many influencers are far from objective, being paid considerable sums to peddle brands regardless of their quality or ethical credentials.
- The desperate race for followers also means influencers are prime purveyors of shareable clickbait and this is exactly how baseless conspiracy theories and fake news are spread.
Celebrities with large social media accounts can also have an unhealthy influence if their messages are poorly informed.
Pop star Ollie Murs famously claimed he heard gunshots inside London’s Selfridges store in 2017 and urged everyone to ‘get out’. His post was retweeted almost 5,000 times and ‘liked’ by nearly 8,000 before it was revealed there was no gunman or gunshots and he had spread unnecessary panic.
It doesn’t mean that social influencers cannot be valuable when used in the right way. But businesses thinking of working with a social influencer should check their history and ranking on a site such as https://socialblade.com to see if they’ve had, for instance, an unexplained rapid increase in followers which might suggest many of those followers have been bought.
PR companies are becoming increasingly expert in spotting fake news and seeking out trusted sites.
Knowing whether Ollie Murs has got the wrong end of the stick is a challenge, of course, but spotting a fake news story is far more feasible.
Essentially, there are two kinds fake news:
1. Stories which are deliberate lies.
2. Stories published or shared without proper checks to ensure they are true.
The problem is that we live in a world where these stories are regularly shared, meaning fake news can travel fast and conspiracy theories often ‘feel’ like they are true.
So, how do you spot them?
Advice from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutes (IFLA) suggests:
- Consider the source – click away from the site to investigate it.
- Read the whole story not just the headline (especially if the headline is sensational or seems designed to encourage hate).
- Check the author and whether they are real.
- Check the date – many fake stories are old.
- Consider whether the article may be satirical rather than serious.
- Consider whether your own biases may affect the way you read it.
- Ask an expert or use a fact checking site to check its claims (such as FactCheck.org, International Fact-Checking Network, Politi-Fact.com or Snopes.com).
Other common-sense checks include:
- Look at the web address for a news story, to see if it looks suspicious or unusual.
- Check if the story has also been reported on more reputable news sites.
- Be suspicious if the story contains a lot of spelling mistakes or grammatical errors.
If content which shows up in a social media feed is being promoted on a website known for clickbait it should be treated with caution. Or if it makes claims without providing any quotes or sources, be equally suspicious. Creditable journalism should include research and fact-gathering.
For this reason, businesses should consider carefully how their messages are delivered. Despite the social media revolution, big television news organisations such as the BBC, Sky News and Al Jazeera retain high reporting standards and that could be the key to regaining their crown as the news destination of choice for younger generations.
Some of the most trusted sources of news (both in print and online) are still published by newspapers and global news agencies such as Reuters, AP and AFP, too.
A survey by brand and marketing communications research company Kantar found only 25 per cent of connected consumers (those owning smart phones/laptops/tablets etc) went to newspapers and magazines for brand information – but once there 53 per cent trusted what they found. More than two-thirds, 68 per cent, also said that objective journalism is key to a healthy democracy. So, maybe we have killed off mainstream media too soon.
In fact, Google sees content on ‘high authority sites’ and those with a high Domain Authority as more valuable when assessing rankings. These are often sites owned by mainstream news organisations – the BBC ranks 30 in the top 500 websites (of all types globally, not just news sites) according to moz.com. Reuters is 38, USA Today 51, New York Times 56, The Guardian 72, Huffington Post 86, Daily Mail 102 and Daily Telegraph 108.
Businesses considering what represents ‘top tier’ for their media and PR messaging should bear in mind that, in terms of information, trust could be the key measuring tool of the future.