Content Marketing or Fake News?

The growth of fake news means more scrutiny of all online content. Will yours measure up?

The term fake news burst across the American consciousness during the last presidential election. Some would argue a flood of fake news, such as a fake story linking Hillary Clinton to a child sex ring at a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, actually influenced the election for President Trump.

While that’s open to debate, one thing is fact – despite efforts to rein it in, fake news seems here to stay and it very likely will impact the job we try to do as content marketers.

“That’s crazy, that’s you creating more fake news” you might want to respond.
But take a minute to think about it.

What is fake news? The term applies to content that has little or no basis in fact but does have a very strong point-of-view about its topic. It’s created to gain maximum online exposure through sharing and SEO techniques. And it strives to drive traffic to specific sites.

Sound familiar?

Reality Check Ahead-653292-edited.jpegAre we using facts for our content marketing efforts or what some would see as subjective truth, something we advocate but others would see as patently false? You need to think long and hard about that, especially as a backlash against fake news grows and the terms gets applied more widely across the online world.

Ready to start a conversation?

Tracing Fake News Origins

BuzzFeed has done a lot of digging into fake news and so it’s a good place to start if you want to understand what’s happening and which stories are getting people’s attention.

In mid-December, 2016, it posted The True Story Behind The Biggest Fake News Hit Of The Election. The piece outlines how a fake news site in June posted a fake news story saying the Pope was endorsing Trump for president. That posting got more than 100,000 comments. A similar fake news story in September got more than 1 million Facebook engagements, BuzzFeed reports.

The first post was on a site WTOE5News that is no longer active but BuzzFeed pegged it as one of 43 websites that have published more than 750 fake news articles. Buzzfeed also tracked a series of fake celebrity news to the sites, so the motive appears to be something other than simply influencing American politics with fake political stories.

Indeed, BuzzFeed concluded the motive for fake news was the same one that drives most businesses, legitimate or illegitimate – money.

“Though some are now offline, nearly all of the sites in this fake news network contained the same Google AdSense ID in their source code. This means the money earned each month from ads placed on the sites is going into a single account,” BuzzFeed reported. It ultimately tracked down a person who supposedly owned that ID, but he denied everything.

Fake news now extends to political, entertainment and crime stories. The top five fake political stories of 2016, according to BuzzFeed using BuzzSumo, were:

  1. Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide –2,177,000 Facebook share, comments and reactions
  2. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement – 961,000 Facebook share, comments and reactions
  3. Trump Offers Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America –802,000 Facebook share, comments and reactions
  4. FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide – 567,000 Facebook share, comments and reactions
  5. Rage Against the Machine to Reunite and Release Anti Donald Trump Album – 560,000 Facebook share, comments and reactions

“After US politics, hoaxes about shocking or ridiculous crimes were the second biggest category of fake news identified in the analysis,” BuzzFeed reports. “They accounted for 34% of total Facebook engagement for the top 50 fake news articles; politics hoaxes generated 49% of the total engagement.”

The fake crime news came earlier in 2016 than the political ones. The top fake crime story was a particularly earthy one that sounds more like a country music song title than a real news story: Woman arrested for defecating on boss’ desk after winning the lottery.

That post got 1,765,000 Facebook shares, comments and reactions, maybe saying something about how people on Facebook feel about their bosses.

Efforts are underway to stop fake news. Techcrunch.com reported in February that “Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (a trade organization for online publishers and advertisers), has called for tech and media companies to ‘actively banish fakery, fraudulence, criminality, and hatred.’

“Some companies are already taking steps in this direction: Google said that it banned 200 publishers in the last quarter of 2016 as part of an effort to crack down on fake news sites.”

Facebook has talked about labeling fake news. While such efforts sound well-intentioned, the BuzzFeed analysis shows how quickly new fake news sites pop up to replace those that are shut down or taken down when the heat gets turned up on them.

Fake News vs. Content Marketing

So is content marketing in danger of being labeled fake news?

“The more we have to compete for eyeballs and dollars, the more likely we are to be tempted to cross the line into…let’s call it “subjective fact,” shall we? Sometimes we do it on purpose, but, more often than not, we just wake up one day and find ourselves writing something that’s total BS,” writes content marketer Patti Podnar in a piece on business2communtiy.com

“Whether it’s stretching the truth to make the facts fit the argument you’re trying to support, ignoring contradictory facts, or employing logical fallacies, these things undermine your credibility more than you realize,” she continues.

Do those things in content marketing and people reading what you post will think “Either that you’re not smart enough to spot the holes in your own argument, that you think they’re not smart enough to catch you, or that you’re not ethical enough to care. And none of those conclusions are especially helpful to your business goals.”

The good news for content marketers to come out of the fake news phenomenon, however, is that it shows “social audiences are hungry for surprising, cutting-edge content that they can share with their friends and followers if it incites an emotional reaction—so much so that they don’t care about its value. If you’re able to provide that content, they’ll flock to you,” writes Jayson DeMers, founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing firm, on Forbes.com in a piece headlined What Fake News Taught Us About the State Of Content Marketing.

“Judgments are instantaneous. People don’t take the time to make careful evaluations of the content they read. Instead, they read headlines and form judgments instantly. Use this quality to your advantage in your content campaigns moving forward by thinking carefully about the headlines you use in your content,” DeMers writes.

DeMers also has a very pointed warning for content marketers:
“With great power... comes great responsibility. You have the power to manipulate audiences with fake information, but don’t do it. It’s your responsibility to persuade them more ethically. Double check your sources. Be honest. Be transparent. Don’t actively contribute to this problem.”

Where Do You Stand?

So are you putting out fake news when you do your content marketing? Ask yourself that question not from your point-of-view but from the point of views of people coming to your site.

They’ll judge you first by your headlines. Use hype or half-truths in those and you’ll lose many of them immediately. The same holds true for the actual content and infographics you use to illustrate it.

DeMers advices that content marketers should do is “to put better, more accurate content in circulation. Learning how stories are viewed and shared can help us put better, more informative content in the spotlight, and hopefully dilute social channels of the muck and mire of fake news.”

Good advice, can you follow it?

Ready to start a conversation?