Whether in the form of breaking news that pigs really can fly, political manipulation or clean eating ambassadors claiming nutritionist status, fake news is one for us all to watch in 2017.
Often tricky to spot, bogus and bizarre headlines are halting the thumbs of social media scrollers worldwide and feeding us a variety of fibs. From stirring up a finger-wagging frenzy of political scandal to helping websites cash in by luring in traffic with “clickbait”, audiences are becoming all too easy to fool with online content.
Since the Brexit vote last year and most recently the inauguration of the new US President, we are beginning to see the rise of “alternative facts” in our newsfeeds. The press’ purpose is to guide us with quality information and of course to encourage democratic opinion and debate, but when the president’s own media adviser declares war on it, it’s not hard to see how vulnerable audiences are becoming completely suspicious of the media; people want to source and share information that mirrors their own views and beliefs.
So why all the fuss now?
Digital = shareable, and pretty much anyone can be their own author. Recent surveys conducted in the US have found that people are getting their news from social media sites 62% of the time, and 80% of students are unable to identify a real from a fake story. Why bother looking any further for a source when credible-looking headlines can be shared in one click? And to add to that, we as content consumers are doing less and less actual consuming before we share. A study last year found that up to 59% of links aren’t even being clicked on let alone read until the end before sharing in our own feeds.
And it’s not all politics and propaganda – Richard Branson recently learned about his own “passing” from the release of a fake news story which subsequently prompted the creation of an RIP Facebook page. The page cranked up over a million likes, an indication of how unconfirmed news can spread like wildfire. Branson spoke out to the official media to reassure the public that he is not only alive and well, but he is now calling for police intervention on the rise of fake news reporting.
The good news is that the government are now working on establishing an industry-standard definition of the phenomenon, whilst also delving into what platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter can and should do to look out for the not-so-social media-savvy among us. It will be interesting as well as useful to see how the psychology behind it works too, and how online adverts might be adding to what has also been dubbed as an “epidemic”.
PR will be crucial for guiding businesses through the “post-truth” minefield, and as well as the media, we all need to tune in to the evolving sources we get our information from and regain trust in journalism. It’s great that the likes of Facebook have now accepted a level of responsibility for protecting its users from fake news scams with its flagging feature, but I hope that both the media and general public call perpetrators out on their bluff to make sure it doesn’t reach a point where we’re all living in conflicting realities.