In 2016, the very prestigious Oxford Dictionary elected “post-truth” as their word of the year. As a matter of fact, last year was crucial for journalism and to a wider extent politics. Trump’s election in 2016, Brexit, and even the Italian constitutional referendum were turning points for the future of our society.
While these crucial events occurred, questions were raised around a relatively new phenomenon: fake news. Currently a popular topic, the debate around fake news and its impact is at the heart of these last month’s key events.
But how does a false narrative become a means of influence for both brands and politicians?
Fake news and the dynamics of mass distribution
According to a Stanford study about the impact of fake news on the 2016 election, fake news can be defined as “news stories that have no factual basis but are presented as facts”.
As presented in one of our previous articles, fake news stories are multiplying and gaining an audience because of several different causes. The most striking is the development of digital trends: the media has evolved towards a digital form, reinforcing the trend that individuals inform themselves on the Internet.
It is now more important than ever. Individuals use not only traditional newspapers websites but also social media to keep track of what happens in the world. Social media is at the core of this enlarged audience. With this development, everyone can become a journalist and share information within its own network, almost instantly.
But why does fake news spread so easily?
In reality, the quick spread of fake news is deeply linked with the development of social media and other digital trends. It’s a vicious circle: fake accounts are created on Facebook or Twitter and these accounts start sharing false information. The fake news then spreads thanks to shares from fake accounts or simply by duped individuals, gaining a larger audience every step of the way. Another aggravating factor is the rise of bots. By using them, hackers can spread information on a wide scale, creating thousands of fake accounts sharing the same information, making it trend almost immediately. Given the massive amount of shares, fake news can even end up in mainstream media…
Why do brands have to be aware of the potential danger of fake news?
We have addressed this subject in our previous article but it’s important to highlight it again. Fake news can have a major impact on brands. The rapidity with which fake news spreads is very dangerous, especially for brand reputation. The examples of Pepsi and New Balance during the 2016 election are striking in this regard. In both cases, a fake news story about a high-ranking official in each company resulted in partial boycotts and a lot of fuss on social media.
Another example of how brands can be affected by fake news can be found in the story of how Chinese hackers managed to make money out of fake press releases. In fact, they first published a fake press release as the Vinci company. The stock value of the company completely plunged after the press release (-18%) which allowed the hackers to buy an important amount of this stock. Hours later, they released another press release to make the markets settle down and started selling their stock after the share price skyrocketed. In just a few hours and only based on fake press releases, these guys created an opportunity to make more money than you and me will ever make.
If you think more deeply about it, these examples are highly political. Should it be the case of New Balance or Pepsi, both brands were touched by a polemic because of political views. But what influence does fake news have on politics?
The political bias created by fake news
Days after Trump’s election, John Oliver, the famous television presenter, stated that “Trump won the election because of fake facts”. Although Oliver is well-known for being opposed to Trump’s political views, his reaction to the election raises the question of the influence of fake news on politics and more generally on the shaping of public opinion.
The fact that everyone can share their own opinion could theoretically be beneficial to the civil society. However, given the large amount of information shared every day on social media, social media itself selects the content you see based on your browsing habits. As a result, individuals mostly see content that they want to see. On political grounds, this means that they only have access to opinions and point of views close to their own. As displeasing as seeing a far-right post on your newsfeed can be, it also guarantees the plurality of opinions and helps you forge your own with all cards in hand. The algorithms elaborated by social media to select the content actually trap individuals inside echo chambers.
But the influence of fake news goes beyond these echo chambers. As a matter of fact, a Buzzfeed study proved that the 20 most popular fake news about the 2016 election were more popular than the 20 most popular mainstream news. An overwhelming majority of these fake news stories were pro-Trump (pro-Trump fake news stories shared 30 million times while pro-Clinton were shared only 7.6 million times), which certainly contributed to Trump’s success on November 6th. After the election, the CIA even released a report stating that the outcome of the election was clearly affected by fake news conveyed by Russian hackers.
Another example is the controversy around a video released by Russia Today about the situation in Aleppo. As you may or may not know, Aleppo was in a state of siege under the assaults of both the Syrian and the Russian army. The international community was shocked by the atrocities perpetrated in Aleppo which resulted in a global coverage of the situation as a genocide. As an alternative argument, Russia Today released a video stating that the situation wasn’t as dramatic as depicted by Western media. The video was shared massively and raised questions about whether or not the Russians were perpetrating war crimes in Syria or not.
Unfortunately, the fake news “crisis” leaves no one unscathed, including European countries. In Germany for instance, the infamous right-wing website Breitbart news claimed a mob chanting “Allahu Akbar” burned down a church on New Year’s Eve. In reality, Breitbart distorted the story, the church wasn’t burnt down. There was only a small fire because of uncontrolled fireworks… Same story in the UK during the Brexit campaign. “Leave” advocates implied that the NHS (National Health Service) could spare 350 million pounds if Britain left the EU. The day after the vote, Nigel Farage claimed that this statement (that had a huge influence on voting) was a mistake.
Fake news stories have been around for centuries now but the digital revolution we’re living in has allowed them to achieve influence on brand reputation and, perhaps more disturbingly, on the outcome of political elections and the shaping of public opinion.
The response of traditional media outlets, social media and political institutions will be crucial in the next few months to reverse the current trend. Traditional media outlets and social media are finally taking measures to strengthen fact-checking and sort out content. But in contrast to these measures, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon, former CEO of the infamous Breitbart News, to the NSC (National Security Council) this week. This clearly isn’t a good signal sent by the Trump administration, Bannon being known to be a far-right activist that co-signed a paper entitled “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”.
— Hugo Fargeas