In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its word of the year. The word defines the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
It’s not particularly surprising that this was the choice that year. Fake news had moved to the forefront of everyone’s minds, due largely to the presidential election. Though the term fake news has been around since the late 19th century, what it encompasses, and its impact on society and discourse, has evolved and grown in recent years.
In 2022, the term “fake news” has its own controversy, and is so prevalent that it has almost lost meaning. While the phrase itself may be worn out, the prevalence and dissemination of misinformation remain a significant concern for public figures, businesses, and anyone trying to learn more online.
If you or your business becomes a target of misinformation, or fake news, what can you do about it? How do you combat a narrative that has forgone facts in the first place? In this article, we will dive a bit deeper into fake news, the impacts it can have on your business, and what you can do to limit the spread of misinformation about you online.
What is fake news?
Even the term “fake news” can be controversial and difficult to define. Coined in the late 1800s due to the rise in popularity of “sensational newspapers,” it has risen to greater prominence more recently, particularly since 2016.
Most simply, fake news is “false or misleading information presented as news,” or news that is not verifiable or factual despite being presented as so. This can apply not only to news articles that are not substantiated, but also articles with clickbait headlines that don’t deliver in the content or satirical commentary or content that is misconstrued as genuine.
Claire Wardle of First Draft News identified the seven types of fake news:
For some, fake news is defined not only by the content itself, but the intention behind it. With its sensational nature, and its tendency to go viral, fake news is often created to damage “the reputation of a person or entity, or make money through advertising revenue.”
In recent years, the term has received scrutiny, as it is often used by public figures to describe any news that could be damaging to their public image, or by news consumers who disagree with the reporting, factual or not.
Due to the controversial nature of the term “fake news,” as well as its rampant misuse by certain public figures, some researchers have attempted to move away from the phrase, opting for phrases such as “information disorder” or “information pollution.”
Why is fake news so popular?
In many expert definitions of fake news, the popularity, appeal, and virality of the content is key in identifying it as fake news. But why is fake news so popular?
There are a few factors that contribute to the reach of fake news:
Social media has been largely credited with the widespread consumption and sharing of fake or unreliable information. A Pew Research Center study discovered that over 60% of Americans get their news via social media, and this study is a few years old, indicating that these numbers could be even higher. In 2016, Buzzfeed reported that the top 20 stories from reputable news sites generated 7.4 million shares, comments, and reactions, compared to 8.7 million generated by the top 20 fake news stories. With the ominpresence of fake news on these platforms (one study suggested that users are exposed to at least one fake news article a day), the spread of fake news can largely be attributed to popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where information is disseminated extremely quickly. 38.2% of Americans have accidentally shared fake news, indicating how difficult it can be for users to determine what they can believe.
Another concern brought on by social media is the responsibility and power this gives tech companies to address the concerns of fake news and false information. This is tricky, because while many social media platforms have implemented processes to limit fake news, propagation of fake news on these platforms benefits the companies behind the platforms, increasing and maintaining engagement. What’s more, attempts to flag or remove content on the basis of fake news can open up these companies to scrutiny, eliciting claims of censorship.
The inherent appeal of fake news is another major factor. While this may seem wishy washy, there is tangible evidence to suggest that fake news is appealing to people, particularly on controversial topics, such as politics. A paper published in Science found that political fake news spreads three times faster than other kinds of fake news.
An analysis of Twitter indicated that tweets with false information were more likely to be retweeted than those determined to be truthful, and that this can be largely attributed to real users (as opposed to bots or automated accounts). This has been attributed largely to clickbait, or titles that elicit a response and are shared by people who have not taken the time to read the articles or verify the validity of what they have read.
Why are people falling for fake news, and so substantially? There are several reasons that fake news is appealing to people, but in our digital world, a key factor is the relationship between algorithms and confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the “tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” Search engine and social media algorithms take into account what users want to see based on previous searches and what users engage with; in turn, the results or posts that users see continue to be more and more curated for them, showing them the things they are most interested in.
This can make us very susceptible to confirmation bias and fake news. If we’re seeing headlines that confirm an idea we have, we will agree and feel well-informed, and likely not take the time to verify the validity of the headline or article we saw. Fake news to tends to target controversial or trendy topics, exciting us when we see something that seems right to us (highlighting Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year).
Fake news has also led to a loss in trust of credible news. The ever-changing definition of fake news, the use of the term for news that is simply disparaging and not necessarily untrue, and the gray area in news brought on by bias and intention, has led to many news consumers distrusting credible news sources.
The Real Impact of Fake News on Your Business
The impacts of negative news on your business can be severe. The effect of negative news on reputation is three times larger than the effect of positive news, and if a negative article lands on the first page of your search results, the consequences can be even worse. Businesses with just one negative article in search results risk losing up to 22% of prospective customers. If you have more, you can suffer greater losses – businesses with four or more negative articles can experience a loss of up to 70% of prospective customers.
Fake news is more insidious than legitimate criticism, and can have more serious impacts on your business’s reputation. The virality and sensationalism associated with fake news can make it difficult to get ahead of, particularly if you don’t act quickly. Due to the fictitious nature of fake news, claims in articles about your business can be difficult to refute depending on how outlandish they are. If you don’t have a plan in place, your reputation can quickly and irrevocably be defined by a fake news cycle.
What You Can Do About Fake News
While you can’t control what people say about you or your business, you can control how you respond, and mitigate the impact of false claims.
The first step in handling fake news is anticipating that it will happen to you. While not everyone becomes a victim of false reporting, having a plan in place will save you time and energy in the event of a fake news article coming out about your business.
Your plan should include how you will respond, where you will respond, and how you will move on. The more detailed your plan is, the better. Due to the nature of fake news, it may be dificult to anticipate what specific claims could come out about your business, but with a plan in place you will be quicker to act in the wake of a negative news article being published.
Develop a Strong Online Presence
The best defense against any hit to your reputation, be it false or credible, is a strong online presence. In the face of negative news – true or not – people will seek out what they can find out about you to shape their opinions. If you don’t have a strong online presence, all they will have to go on is what other people have said about you, removing your own say from defining your reputation.
We’ve talked a bit about what goes into a strong online presence, but in the wake of fake news, your best asset is your authenticity. The more transparent and honest you can be, the more likely you are to build trust and reputability with your audience, protecting you from a reputation crisis.
Keep Your Ear to the Ground
In order to know what people think of you, you need to stay up-to-date on what they’re saying. While news publications are easier to catch, social media posts and comments may be a bit more difficult, despite the significant impact social media conversations can have on your reputation.
Implement social listening – or social media monitoring – to stay in-the-know on what is being said about your business online. Don’t just monitor Facebook – keep track of Twitter, Reddit, and any other social media platform where your business may appear in conversation. Additionally, set up Google Alerts for your business name and any othr relevant terms so you can learn about new stories in real time.
Identify the Intention
If a fake news article is written about you or your business, the first step is to understand why. Find the original source of the false claim, identify the specific claim, and determine what the purpose was in publishing this false claim. Was the article written by someone previously associated with your business? Is it personal or professional? What would someone have to gain by publishing false information? Can you refute the claim easily, or is it more ambiguous?
Once you have identified the source, claim, and intention behind the fake news, you will be better positioned to respond and take back control of the narrative.
Tell the Truth
Seems a little obvious, but one of the best ways to refute fake news is to address it head on and tell the truth. Once you have identified the false claim, address the specific issue honestly, with any information you can share to verify your own perspective. Don’t get defensive or overcomplicate your response – keep it simple, and highlight the falseness of the original claim.
Additionally, you need to assess when a claim doesn’t require a response. While some stories will be too large to ignore, as we’ve talked about, fake news derives a significant portion of its power from its virality. Determine if responding will set the record straight or simply fan the flames – if it’s the latter, just leave it be.
Leverage Social Media
Just as social media can be a valuable channel for spreading misinformation, it can help you set the record straight. If you are facing a fake news story that warrants a response, share your side of the story on your social channels. Similarly to any response, do so simply, clearly, and quickly, as the spread of information online can be extremely quick.
Additionally, utilize the tools social media platforms give you. In recent years, many of the most popular social media platforms have put processes in place to report false information and submit it to be removed. The same is true for search engines, which often have processes for reporting information that violates content guidelines. When you see any negative news, about your business or in general, report it to the platform.
The internet moves fast, and while results may not ever disappear, not every negative post or article will destory your reputation. Over time, a post will lose traction, an article will slip in results, or another story will replace the one about you. Whether you’ve decided to address the false claims or leave them be, at a certain point, the best you can do is focus on improving your online presence, presenting yourself authentically, and moving forward.