Media consumption is soaring in these times, with more people cooped up inside and spending more time online. This is why businesses are shifting to e-Commerce. Advertising and marketing campaigns are also doubling down on digital. But there has also been a rise in disinformation, or fake news. Just like black hat SEO techniques but geared towards the “human/social search engine algorithm.”
And like its counterpart, it has grown prevalent. That is why it is crucial to get an understanding of the phenomenon and its consequences. Anyone dealing with SEO must have an awareness of black hat techniques. Similarly, understanding fake news and why it must be avoided should be one of the responsibilities of content creation.
Fake News 101
Fake news encompasses a wide array of sketchy, shady practices. From promoting products of dubious quality like snake oil treatments and remedies, to sensationalizing events for the sake of click revenues, to undermining public trust in institutions in order to promote the aforementioned snake oil. These are just some of the usual tricks.
Does an online store have a habit of knowingly offering one kind of product while delivering something else entirely to customers, without responding to complaints or facing any accountability? This counts as fake news, the deliberate use of false information as a component of the scam.
Is a supposed alternate health site offering a miracle cure all that actually has no FDA approved therapeutic capabilities? Does it try to raise awareness of this product by spreading dodgy sensationalist content, while undermining actual medical science, healthcare institutions and authorities? This counts as fake news, and a really big chunk of the disinformation market at that.
How about the sensationalized viral news and unbelievable (and obviously photoshopped) images that older relatives love to share in the family group chats despite attempts at educating them on the use of Snopes.com? Yep, fake news too.
Why is there so much!?
Because it is profitable. Again, it’s the human and social equivalent of black hat SEO techniques. Fake news hacks the “search algorithm” of the human mind and society. And the more we are saturated by it, the more we see fake news, the less fake it becomes. It becomes normalized and identifying what’s fake and what isn’t becomes more difficult.
It’s the digital media equivalent of tabloid press, but worse. Like legit content creation, it is also less costly than its traditional media counterpart. And needless to say, it is quite harmful.
Disinformation not only helps scam people and fleece them of their money, it can kill people. Alarmism, hysteria, supposed “cures” that do nothing against actual illnesses while convincing people they don’t need help, “skeptically” denying actual emergencies – these are just some of the consequences relevant to the current situation with COVID, as outlined by this article about a BBC team tracking the human toll of coronavirus misinformation.
Big Tech Fights Back
It has been growing in severity to the point that tech companies are taking action against the phenomenon. After all, something’s got to give, and we have seen Big Tech CEOs summoned to congressional hearings, news agencies break the news about the dodgy affairs of Cambridge Analytica, and companies beginning to boycott Facebook and get on Zuckerberg’s case. So Facebook and Twitter have started taking some action against misinformation, particularly regarding coronavirus. There have been mass purges of trolls and fake users, bad actors do get held accountable. So, like sites using black hat SEO techniques suffering penalties, organizations that use fake news are actually facing consequences.
Even when it’s not penalties from online platforms, there can also be social consequences for peddling dubious claims. Like a certain billionaire electric car and spaceship corporation techbro downplaying a major health crisis only to damage their brand. Not quite the real-life Tony Stark now, eh?
Accountability is definitely a good thing. And it is a lesson to all parties, showing everyone that fake news does not pay.
Business-wise it is the same with black hat SEO techniques. You might be able to get away with it now, and it might seem quick and easy. But some day there will be blow-back. Brands that aren’t with their posting and sharing, even when they are legit, might end up being judged as fake news accounts by social media moderation teams – like what happened in 2019 when a lot of alternative health accounts got taken down.
So be careful. You might just be a brand focusing on healthy living and organic diets without any dubious “miracle cure” products. But in a moment of carelessness you might have shared or republished a few questionable posts and articles. And then end up getting hit by “splash damage” because of the greater overall fake news epidemic.
Moreover, beyond branding and business, exercising due diligence is the ethical responsibility of content creators. It is the same for Pulitzer-winning journalists checking their confidential sources or Virtual Assistants managing some small startup’s social media accounts and looking for cool posts to share. Be mindful about what you are creating and disseminating. Not just because of potential penalties enacted by Google or Facebook. But because there might be real consequences in people’s lives.