The term "fake news" took on a whole new meaning and set of consequences following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One of the biggest stories following the election was the chaos wrought by so-called “fake news” articles and publications.
Today people often call it by another name, propaganda. Using widely distributed media that tell half-truths in order to influence public opinion has been going on since Darius I took the Persian throne in 515 BCE. In America, it's been around since the days of yellow journalism and perhaps before.
The goal of propaganda and fake news is often to damage the reputation of a group, individual, or idea. By discrediting something, the party responsible for the distribution of lies gains power over the people who believe in these falsehoods. At the same time, the tarnished reputation serves to repulse supporters and diminish their ability to grow support.
Fake news versus propaganda
While propaganda purports half-truths, fake news is different in that it’s usually patently false. Think tabloids with outrageous headlines -- “Oprah gains 600 pounds!” or “The Pope is charged with ten felonies."
Also of interest: How fake news and followers are created.
Seems ridiculous, right? Still, people are buying tabloids, clicking on fake news, and believing it all in the process. But how did this all start? And what are the effects of fake news today? Continue reading to find out.
Drinking a boy's blood for Passover?
Manipulating the public with falsehoods is a hallmark of certain institutions, and has been for a long while. In 1475, a priest, Bernardino da Feltre, circulated false stories through his sermons that the Jewish community of his city of residence had kidnapped a young boy. Da Feltre told his faithful church-goers that the Jewish perpetrators had taken the boy in order to kill him, drain his blood, and drink it in celebration of Passover.
Jews tortured due to fake news
When the outrage sparked flames, da Feltre claimed that the body had been found in the basement of a Jewish family. This was the tipping point for the Prince-Bishop of the city, who had the entire Jewish population gathered and tortured.
As a result, 15 people were found guilty and burned at the stake, and the church canonized the young boy as Saint Simon, along with an attribution to hundreds of miracles. This catastrophe became so famous that the term "blood libel" was created to refer to the act of Jews falsely killing Christians.
This particular piece of fake news from 1475 worked so well that even today the Anti-Defamation League keeps a page on its website that serves to remind the public of the falsehoods of the blood libel story. Sadly, today, almost 600 years after the lies were made public, some people still hold belief in them.
Russia’s involvement with fake news
When thinking about fake news, Russia may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, according to popular sources, as of 2019, Russia still actively and aggressively attempts to influence media around the world. The Russian government has gone as far as to claim they are in a global war with the media.
The state-supported news channel, Russia Today, is a publication that openly pushes propaganda. The goal of the propaganda is to increase the Kremlin's global influence. If it weren’t bad enough that a government operated a news channel with the goal of increasing that government's power, consider this -- Russia Today has been accused several times of spreading disinformation.
According to the Washington Post, the Russian government operates “thousands of botnets, teams of paid human "trolls," and networks of websites and social-media accounts that together constitute a sophisticated propaganda machine. The end result is a public distrust of media at large, which is exactly what the Kremlin wants.
The impact of falsehoods on reputation
Fake news can wreak havoc on a good reputation to a much higher degree than a few negative reviews for businesses. One is generally honest, the other patently false. Additionally, people are more likely to believe sources that appear to be news.
Falsehoods tarnish your reputation, which can cause the following negative business impacts:
- Fewer qualified job seekers will want to work for your company
- People will lose trust in your business, which leads to...
- Lower revenues
- Higher marketing costs
- Greater risk
In late 2016, a conservative publication, the ConservativeTreeHouse, published a fake news story about Pepsi refusing to service Trump supporters. In the online age, inflammatory news spreads fast, and sentiment can be measured. One company, the Alva Group, measured the impact that the article had on Pepsi’s reputation. The company reported that Pepsi’s sentiment score dropped 35 percent below average because of the publication. Social media has the power to demonize people and companies. That’s a huge impact on a company’s reputation from a single article on some little-known site.
Real news isn't extinct yet
Reputation attacks like the example above happened during the 2016 election, as well. Economists speculate that while the media landscape isn’t inundated with fake news stories, a striking level of fabricated news stories circulated during the election. That Russia helped Donald Trump win the election through the use of their propaganda war machine, as uncovered by several US intelligence agencies, further shows that the damage caused by fake news can be significant and even world-changing.
Most recently, the Dutch have vowed to hand-count votes due to fears of hacking by Russia or other state actors. French and German elections are reported to be under similar suspicion of hacking vulnerability. None of these countries wants to relive recent events in America.
Political activism or simple greed?
Fake news is the spread of patently false information under the guise of real news.
It's easy to believe people publish fake news due to political affiliation, but the truth might be different. It's been found that most people do it simply for profit. Google and other online advertisers have created an environment where fantastic stories are rewarded financially. The bigger the story, the more profit in the form of advertising revenue - never mind factual basis. This new environment of sensationalism and populism drives click-through rates for advertisers.
Entire regions have capitalized on this system. Most notably, a small town in Macedonia named Veles. Veles is the home of at least one hundred fake news websites. When the owners of the sites were asked why they did it the answer was usually "profit." Pro-Trump supporters were rabidly clicking on items; truth mattered less than sensationalism. They were simply riding the wave of trending emotion and capitalizing on it.
Wikipedia can be fake news
Wikipedia is a trusted source, but it can be edited by anyone. While there is a robust group of volunteers patrolling the pages for bogus information on Wikipedia, there are even more accounts out there that edit Wikipedia pages for profit, and a small number of them do it to support propaganda.
Wikipedia uses various bots and tools to check users' editing patterns, but it's ripe for well-funded groups, sometimes political operatives, to falsify, whitewash, or just subtly change facts. Sometimes they do it by simply changing a page; other more sophisticated attacks include planting false information in the media, then using that information as references for Wikipedia edits. It's difficult for a patrolling Wikipedia editor to reverse an edit that is backed up by one or more trusted sources.
Passionate People are Targets
Passionate people will click on almost anything they agree with, especially if it's dramatic. If it supports their view, it'll often get click-love. People on the far right or left tend to be most susceptible to fabulists leveraging their online fury. Fury translates to clicks. Clicks to dollars, euros, and rubles. In the end, it's all about profit more than politics.
The political landscape in the United States and elsewhere may have been altered not so much by political actors but by a seemingly benevolent system gone awry.
Fake news FAQs
What is the difference between fake news and propaganda?
While propaganda purports half-truths, fake news is different in that it’s usually patently false. Think tabloids with outrageous headlines -- Oprah gains 600 pounds! or The Pope is charged with ten felonies.
How does fake news affect your reputation?
Falsehoods tarnish your reputation, which can cause the following negative business impacts. Fewer qualified job seekers will want to work for your company. People will lose trust in your business. Lower revenues. Higher marketing costs. Greater risk.
What is fake news?
Fake news is information, especially in espionage or propaganda, disseminated as a response and opposition to other information.
How do you know if you're at risk of a fake news attack?
Here are just a few of the reasons someone might initiate a negative information attack against your business. You’ve recently experienced substantial company or financial growth. One or more of your employees does or says something controversial. A data breach occurs. Disgruntled customers come forward. Your business or employees expressly share their opinions on hot-button topics like politics or religion. You've done anything to provoke or anger a competing business.
How do you fact-check fake news?
Consider the source. Look past the headline. Investigate sources. Check your own biases. Refer elsewhere.
About the author
Kent Campbell is the chief strategist for Reputation X, a San Francisco Bay Area-based online reputation management services firm. He has over 15 years of experience with SEO, Wikipedia editing, review management, and online reputation strategy. Kent has helped celebrities, leaders, executives, and marketing professionals improve the way they are seen online. Kent writes about reputation, SEO, Wikipedia, and PR-related topics.