Fake news: What to do when real people end up in phony stories

Like no other event, the US presidential election laid bare the newly scrambled media landscape where the work of fake news sits often with equal billing on Facebook, Twitter and other internet terrain, alongside stories from legitimate journalistic institutions.

In the run-up to the election, we saw stories linking a senior Hillary Clinton strategist to occult rituals involving bodily fluids; another from the “Denver Guardian” about an FBI agent on the Clinton email case who had murdered his wife and shot himself; and one about a “secret memo” from Clinton’s pollster detailing plans to “salvage” her candidacy.

Fake news was so pervasive it tripped up Donald Trump’s son Eric who tweeted a false “ABC” story about a man who claimed he was paid $3,500 from the Clinton campaign to protest at Trump rallies. In his tweet, Eric wrote, “Finally the truth comes out! #CrookedHillary.”

In part, we’re hearing more about fake news because of its threat to the integrity of our political system and the way it undermines legitimate media outlets, but fake news sites have been around for some time as money-making ventures. In 2012, for example, the FTC announced a settlement with marketers who used fake news sites to boast claims made about weight-loss products and colon cleansers. 

The money motive is still much alive. A recent Buzzfeed investigation reported on a “digital gold rush” in the Macedonian town of Veles where locals have launched at least 140 political websites over the last year. And it’s not because they’re interested in politics. It’s the money that moving them. As Buzzfeed wrote, a “fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising—a declining market for American publishers—goes a long way in Veles.”

That’s a relevant point for businesses. With decent profit motive, there is a chance anything, including stories mentioning your firm or your firm’s employees, can make it on to a fake news site. It may not be done with malicious intent, only just to get a few page views, or it may be an attempt to advance a political agenda on either end of the spectrum. Whatever the motive, real people and real organizations are increasingly caught in the fray.

We’ve noted a growing number of fake news sites that, instead of writing fake stories, pull existing content from legitimate news sites, alter it slightly (and often sloppily) and post it to the web. These real identities lend credence to spurious sites, and the actual “sources” are often deeply concerned when these mentions turn up in regular news alerts. So, what can they do about it?

1. Don’t panic

Unlike some of the fake stories mentioned above, the vast majority of fake news sites receive minimal views. A number of website metrics are available online, both as free and fee-based services. If a site’s unique page visits are relatively low, the page is unlikely to turn up in search results. If the site in question does not turn up prominently in search results, it’s often best to ignore it. Any increased attention can actually increase its staying power online.

2. Investigate

If you’re not sure about a website’s credibility, there are a number of dead giveaways, many of which mirror those of commercial phishing sites. Often the site generator or template used is listed on the footer of the page—not a hallmark of reputable news sites. Copious spelling and grammatical errors, as well as low resolution images are other easy indicators of hastily cobbled sites. 

3. Consult with PR and legal counsel

If the story is gaining traction on the internet, it’s worth consulting PR and legal counsel on next steps. Depending on the site owner’s location, they may be within reach of communications intervention or even legal action.

Andrew Longstreth is the Head Writer at Infinite Global. Steven Andersen is the firm’s Vice President for Content and Client Strategy. Both are based in New York.