by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) Fake news is very much a mot du jour. Voted word of the year for 2016 by the editors of Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, it is widely associated with politics, but its spread has profound implications for brands.
Surprisingly, for a phrase we’re all so familiar with, the term only gained currency towards the end of the recent US presidential election race (Google Trends shows interest in the phrase started picking up in October), when a bunch of entrepreneurs and online tricksters started creating sensational clickbait that played to American voters’ prejudices. Almost overnight, a cottage industry emerged — much of it run by teenage Macedonians — spinning stories that ranged from Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS to the Pope endorsing Donald Trump.
Whether the content influenced the outcome of the US election is a moot point, but the publishers’ motive wasn’t political — it was financial: they’d spotted a flaw in Facebook’s algorithms and realised that they could use the social media platform to amplify stories, pushing visitors to their own websites where they could monetise the traffic by selling adverts.
Which isn’t that different to what happened a few years ago to Google when unscrupulous website owners figured they could manipulate the search giant.
They created millions of websites using stolen content which they then spammed with dodgy links. Unable to tell the difference between this flotsam and genuinely useful web resources, Google included the fake sites in its search results, encouraging people to click through to them. In a delightful irony, the owners used Google’s own AdSense programme to sell ads to the visitors. Web users, unhappy at the rubbish they were being guided to, voted with their browsers and switched in vast numbers to rival search engines, prompting Google to completely review the way it ranks websites (and penalises the ones taking shortcuts).
Changed the SEO industry
This changed the shape of the SEO industry for the better, forcing brands and their agencies to be more authentic and ethical in the way they optimised websites. I hope the fake news epidemic will lead to a similar change in the way brands and publishers use social media.
If brands are going to continue using paid media to amplify their content, they ought to be more aware of the reputational impact of being seen in a dodgy neighbourhood. That means media buying needs greater scrutiny and pressure must be put on the ad-placement networks to tighten up the criteria they use to select inventory.
Perhaps, although I suspect this is too much to hope for, the fake news debacle will cause the penny to drop in the quality vs quantity debate. Great content is hard to produce yet it delivers meaningful engagement. Wouldn’t it be neat if we made less of it but put more effort into it?
Change needed at publisher level
And change is needed at a publisher level. Social media platforms such as Facebook need to overhaul their content evaluation processes. Like many publishers, Facebook uses machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to scan content, looking for keywords and context. Its AI bots have long been programmed to find and delete references to porn and terrorism but, until recently, it’s let pretty much anything else fly — regardless of veracity or editorial merit.
In mid-November 2016, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shared his thoughts on fake news, indicating that Facebook would be reviewing its evaluation criteria (read changing its AI algorithms). The impact was immediate. And rather embarrassing. Zuckerberg’s post disappeared. It had been deleted by an overzealous Facebook fake news bot. You couldn’t make it up. Could you?
I’m all for automation, and I love the opportunities that AI, machine learning and programmatic buying are bringing to the digital landscape, but I suspect it’ll be a while before we humans are out of a job.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.