Combating Clickbait - Part 2

18 January 2017

In this, the second and final instalment of our Combating Clickbait series, we consider what to do if you find yourself the focus of a fake news campaign.

Defamation law applies to unconventional publishers as well as conventional ones, and publishers which do not fact check are less likely to be able to defend false articles. However, formulating an effective legal response to fake news campaigns carries particular challenges. It can be difficult to trace the origin of online publications and those behind them, as they often use tools to hide their identity. These barriers are not insurmountable, but even if you do identify the source of a fake news campaign, you may find them to be less receptive to conventional legal responses. Furthermore, fake news stories can gain traction quickly. Often fake news is accepted as fact by readers, gains further credibility when adopted by mainstream media organisations, and remains in the public consciousness even when subsequently debunked.

The limits to a traditional response mean that a swift and wide-ranging strategy is crucial to protect your reputation.

First, consider taking pre-emptive steps to limit the scope and harm of targeted fake news campaigns. Start by understanding and gaining control of your digital footprint; so that you can limit the fuel available to a fake news publisher to ignite a fire. Bear in mind that peddlers of fake news are adept at framing seemingly innocuous material in a sinister light. Another step is to use sophisticated and wide-ranging early warning media monitoring; crucial if you’re to prevent a fake story from gaining traction and unfounded allegations on an obscure social media page from being taken at face value.  

Second, in the event you discover you’ve become the victim of a fake news story, use intelligence and investigators to try and identify those behind it and what their motives are. In addition to supporting your legal efforts, this knowledge will prove crucial in forming a counter-strategy. For example, is the fake news story a one-off or part of a wider dirty-tricks campaign?

Third, engage with social media platforms and search engines as well as publishers and journalists at the earliest opportunity. The sooner that organisations and individuals are put on notice of false and defamatory content, the less likely that a fake news story will gain traction and be picked up by mainstream media.

Social media platforms and search engines are becoming more live to the threat of fake news and more receptive to removing fake stories or reducing their prominence. Social media platforms are beginning to announce specific measures to counteract fake news, alongside existing means of flagging inappropriate content. Mark Zuckerberg recently listed a number of measures which Facebook are considering. These include stronger detection and easier reporting, third party verification, warnings for readers, and engaging with journalists and others in the news industry to learn from their fact checking systems.

Google has also indicated that it may be willing to reduce the prominence of fake stories. At the end of 2016, Google altered its algorithms to reduce the prominence of articles disseminating holocaust denial conspiracy theories. A spokesperson from Google commented: “We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web…We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.”

In another twist, search engines and social media platforms could face government intervention should they fail to self-regulate effectively. The German government is currently considering forming an anti-disinformation unit, and imposing heavy fines on websites which fail to remove fake news stories within 24 hours of notification.

Ultimately, the growth of fake news pages presents fresh challenges to those seeking to protect their reputation. However, a creative, swift and multidisciplinary response can mitigate the impact of viral news campaigns.

To read part one of this Clickbait series, click here.

Receive our monthly newsletter

About the Author

Jane Ashford-Thom


Jane advises prominent individuals and the companies they represent on reputation and privacy issues.

+44 (0)20 7034 9000
Our 24 hour number
+44 (0)20 7034 9000
Legal information

© 2021 Schillings International LLP. SCHILLINGS is a trading name of Schillings International LLP and Schillings International (USA) LLP.

Schillings International LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registration number OC398731. A list of members of Schillings International LLP is available for inspection at our registered office 12 Arthur Street, London, EC4R 9AB. Schillings International LLP is an Alternative Business Structure regulated and authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Schillings International (USA) LLP is a registered limited liability partnership organised and existing under the laws of the State of Delaware, United States of America, whose principal place of business is at One World Trade Center, Suite 8500, New York, NY 10007. Our New York based attorneys are registered as a foreign legal consultant in the State of New York.