In the wake of the recent presidential election results, the issue of rampant fake news on the Internet has been a trending news topic. Fake news isn’t a new issue, but, the controversy with this year’s election combined with more people getting their news from social media than in previous years, has allowed the creators of fake news to capitalize. In 2016, 62% of US adults get news on social media, and 44% get news from Facebook specifically.
Because of these statistics, two of the biggest internet companies, Google and Facebook, have faced criticism for ranking fake news sites and for potentially swaying voters in this election season. In light of this criticism, Facebook and Google are pledging to use their power for good and are working to crack down on fake news publishers.
Who is Creating Fake News?
One question many people have is, “where does the fake news come from?” An initial reaction may be that it’s created by individuals or organizations with an agenda to sway readers to believe a certain way. While that sentiment may be true and could be a motivator, the main motivation to create fake news sites is profit. Creators of fake news sites found they can profit from Google’s AdSense platform and Facebook’s ad platform. Because of this, fake news spammers will work hard to create sites that appear legitimate to a normal user and further proliferate the spread of misinformation.
In a recent report, Buzzfeed News uncovered a hot bed of fake news sites coming from the country of Macedonia – at least 140 political sites are publishing from the small town of Veles. Younger, tech savvy citizens there discovered that publishing sensationalized, pro-Trump content would generate a lot of engagement, shares, traffic, and most importantly, money.
Originally, the owners of the fake news sites tried pro-Bernie Sanders or pro-Hillary Clinton news early on, but it wasn’t as catchy – and therefore not as profitable – as right-wing pro-Trump articles. By spinning real news with a false-but-catchy headline (also known as clickbait), or publishing entirely fake articles, the sites receive hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook. This earns publishers thousands of dollars in money from ad revenue, such as through Google AdSense.
One university student who was interviewed by Buzzfeed News mentioned that the market was saturated, but sites that have been around longer do well. The student shared that a friend of his earns about $5,000 a month and up to $3,000 per day if one of their stories trends.
How Facebook and Google are Responding to Fake News
Facebook and Google have both responded to the criticism leveraged at their respective sites, algorithms and ad platforms about allowing fake news to be visible on their sites. Google updated its ad policy to block fake sites.
Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville stated, “moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.”
Google already had a policy in place to block misleading ads and scam sites from utilizing their ad platform, so this is merely an extension of those policies.
The pledge to block fake news sites is particularly controversial for Facebook. Facebook has to weed out these mostly conservative stories without seeming like they have political bias, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his site have been accused of in the past.
However, in December, Facebook announced a new flagging system to help warn users of fake websites. Zuckerberg stated that he didn’t want Facebook to be in charge of deciding what is true or not, so they are turning to their users and a flagging system to help mark sites as fake. If a site gets enough marks from users, the site will be sent to 3rd party fact-checking organizations, like Snopes, PolitiFact, The Associated Press and ABC News, to fact check the site and mark it as a disputed source on Facebook. Facebook doesn’t want to censor its users, so users can still share the websites marked as disputed, they will just see a warning mentioning that the site is disputed and why before they click share.
These 3rd party organizations will not be compensated for fact-checking the sites. In fact, many sites feel that it’s part of their journalistic duties to help stop the flood of misinformation and encourage integrity and ethical reporting standards.
Lastly, concerning Facebook’s efforts, the social media giant will work to block the disputed sites from their ad platform to also limit the financial gain of their publishers.
How Do Fake News Sites Impact Your Reputation?
Individuals and organizations need to be extra vigilant about what they share. With the changing landscape of online publishing, if giant sites are cracking down on fake news publishers, there could also be a penalty in the future for influential individuals and brands that interact with and promote disputed content and sites. As a brand, you don’t want to make Facebook’s algorithm work against you or potentially have Facebook and Google not allow your brand to use their advertising platforms. As always, fact check any information that your brand shares and publishes on your behalf.
There can be a big benefit for the digital reputation of individuals and brands too. If spammy sites are publishing misinformation about you or your brand, there may be ways to dispute their claims and devalue bad sites in the future. However, if the claims have some validity, the content can continue to live in Google’s search results and Facebook’s newsfeed.
Despite the future implications of these changes, individuals and brands should go through their old content – on your site and social media sites – and consider auditing your content for anything that may misrepresent your character and your company.