Combating Clickbait - Part One

04 January 2017

Post-truth, an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ is the word of the year for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. The editors of Oxford Dictionary state that its use has increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to 2015.

There been much hand-wringing in the media in recent weeks over fears that we are entering into a post-truth era due to the proliferation of “fake news”; whereby websites and social media pages are set up or utilised for the purpose of publishing and amplifying false and often inflammatory news stories. President Obama has even entered into the debate, warning that “[if] we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”.

Some fake news stories are entirely untrue, while others disregard journalistic standards and misrepresent facts to such a great extent that they can be just as damaging as the false ones.

Broadly speaking, the intent of the publishers behind these sites and stories falls under three categories.  The first category is the growing number of publishers who disseminate fake news stories which are intended to be taken as parodies. These stories are usually easily identifiable as such by their style and content, but are sometimes adopted and disseminated as fact by undiscerning readers. The second category is political; some writers genuinely believe the truth of their stories, or take the view that disseminating false information can be justified by some greater goal. The third category is financial, with stories with a large number of hits yielding considerable advertising revenues. Paul Horner, a self-confessed writer of fake news stories, recently estimated that he makes around $10,000 a month from advertising.

Many readers find it difficult to distinguish genuine news stories from fake ones. Disseminators of fake news often include words associated with credible news sources such as “Daily”, “Times”, “Post”, and “News” in their names to confuse readers as to the provenance of their stories. The design of their websites and social media pages are often quite sophisticated. Many publications target readers whose online habits indicate a desire to believe them, and may suffer from so-called ‘confirmation bias’.

The success of fake news is putting pressure on other publications, with journalists under considerable strain to write ‘clickbait’ news stories. Some publishers, allegedly including the recently-defunct Gawker, linked their journalist’s pay to the number of hits generated by their article, so is it any surprise that some may be prepared to dabble in the unscrupulous from time to time?

The influence of these fake news publishers is growing. A recent investigation by Buzzfeed into viral fake election news alleged that fake news outperformed real news on Facebook in terms of engagement in the final months of the US Presidential election. One of the top five fake election news stories in the three months before the election was the outlandish allegation that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. Buzzfeed also found that many fake claims were being adopted and disseminated by more credible sources.

Further, over half of the sample surveyed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report for 2016 stated that they use social media as a source of news each week, and around one in ten said that it was their main news source.

The rise of fake news presents unique challenges for individuals and companies trying to protect their reputation. The speed at which news stories gain traction on social media means that a bespoke strategy and a swift multidisciplinary response are crucial to nip fake news stories in the bud. 

In the next part of this series, we set out the steps to take in the event you become the target of a fake news campaign.

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About the Author

Jane Ashford-Thom


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

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