The dark industry of fake news
In 2017, ¨fake news¨ was voted the word of the year by the Collins dictionary. No wonder, in recent years it is one of the most popular ¨buzzwords¨ on the Web and social networks.
This is not a recent phenomenon. Trump did not invent the tactics of false news, lies, and misinformation in politics. Others well before him have gone out of their way to build their influence on their way to power. The problem does not only affect the media and politics but concerns us all as consumers. The phenomenon of false news has given birth to a real industry. This was reported last year by an NPR investigative journalist who reported the case of Jestin Colier. He’s the head of a veritable empire of disinformation sites like the Denver Guardian.
Over the last few years, it’s only gotten worse. Most people don’t trust the news. According to the latest annual report of the Edelman Global Trust Barometer study, since the last economic recession (2008-2009), the level of confidence towards the four main institutions of society has reached its lowest historical level this year. And, especially with the media, whose credibility rating has dropped dramatically between 2016 and 2017: in 82% of the countries surveyed there is a loss of confidence. Of which 17 countries have reached the lowest level of all time.
¨There are so many lies coming out of the White House. It’s because a large part of the population does not yet know the difference between the facts and the fiction¨, posted recently on the opinion page of the New York Times Facebook page. In another National Public Radio (NPR) article, Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at the University College of London who has studied how we treat new information coming out revealed that with social media we tend to stay open to new data only if it confirms what we already think. So we find a way to ignore facts which can contradict our beliefs.
According to this new study, users evaluate each other’s opinion as valid, without considering the expertise. But the media naturally seeks to amplify the news, to reap the peak of traffic and income, and manipulate the “popular vote” in their favor.
The thin line between influence marketing and false recommendations
In a recent article in the newspaper Le Devoir, written by Pierre Trudel, the phenomenon of false news, which drives the debate as much, rests on two different realities. On the one hand, there are humorous parodies, sometimes so plausible and entertaining that they freeze the genius of the ¨storytelling¨, but on the other, there are the disruptive agents and profiteers who frog behind the curtains behind the scenes to manipulate the opinion of the masses and influence their decisions in their favor. The line between the two is sometimes very thin, and it is at this level that regulation must restore order.
However, despite better control of responsible agencies, such as the Canadian Ad Standards office, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States, some brands, and their associates, do not hesitate to continue to use the same ploy, to deceive the trust of their customers with fake accounts, false recommendations, and disguised advertisements. To the point that it has also become a problem of perception of the role of influencers and influence marketing on social media. Influence continues to be confused with advertising and fooled the public.
In recent years, several cases of false recommendations on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook were however flushed out. There was the scandal of influencers paid by Microsoft to promote Xbox One, the betting bloggers Counter-Strike site, and the famous stories of advertisements disguised as recommended video games on YouTube, including PewDiePie and ImWildCat, which lost hence, a lot of credibility and influence with their fans.
More cleverly, there was also the case of the young Louise Delage, on Instagram. In the summer of 2016, her account (fictional), which published photos of her around the world, enjoying the sun cruising on boats or in exotic places, always a drink in hand, quickly became very popular and attracted thousands of likes a day. After a while, however, the BETC advertising agency started sowing the clues in the comments that it was, in fact, the Action Addiction Fund’s Like My Addiction campaign.
In some cases, such as this one, which only aims to influence to raise awareness, or others such as humorous parodies or stagings that only seek to surprise for entertaining or entertaining, there is, fortunately, no bad consequences. But, all too often, marketing agencies and big brands are caught taking advantage of the situation and the shortcomings of the system to deceive the population. Once again, this is a bad perception of influence marketing, which relies more on trust and the quality of relationships.
A phenomenon amplified by social media
If the marketers have been able to take advantage of the ploy as much, by forging false recommendations with the influenceratis, or by mounting disguised campaigns like the one with Louise Delage, it is also that social media open the door for them. Platform algorithms favor what attracts attention and what generates the ¨buzz, and influences the flow of news in this direction.
In a recent article by Larry Kim (CTO of WordStream), recently published on the website of the magazine INC explains however how it could have been especially easy for the Russians (or anyone else) to take advantage of the gaps in the networks to create the ¨buzz¨, and artificially generate traffic with advertising with a fake account. He first created the fake Citizen News Network news site, trading a CNN logo to establish his brand. Not very convincing as tactical, as he agrees, but he had intentionally chosen to exploit an old rumor of false news known, thinking that Facebook would be able to detect it. He then invested a small $50 to promote his news, and it reached more than 4,500 people and got 200 website visits, 44 likes, 27 people shared it, and 20 commented on it. Nearly 300 commitments for as little investment.
Today, the phenomenon of false news is greatly amplified by the extraordinary reach of social media. While the radio had taken 38 years to reach 50 million users, the Internet took only 7, and Facebook, barely 3 and a half years. Since the beginning of the 2000s, we are in an era of consummate information, the overabundance of content and information, which circulates daily on the Web and social networks, also means that we have much less time to consume the info and that our opinions are too often formed on the surface. While 75% of real news dies in less than 120 minutes, fake news reports live four hours more, spread in less than 175 minutes.
In this context, the way we consume information via social networks is also largely responsible for the problem. More than three in four Internet users do not take the time to check the source of information, before sharing it on social networks. And, when we know that a quarter of the information that circulates is just from opinions and that a third of consumer opinions on social networks are false, a minimum of checks should be required.
Making the difference between the facts and the fictions
But, it’s not new that we get caught. Some creators sometimes show genius. Nearly 90 years ago, when the radio was booming, was on the air what is still considered one of the most famous hoaxes. On the evening of Monday, October 30, 1938, the day before Halloween, the CBS radio broadcasts an adaptation of “The War of the Worlds“, inspired by the novel by HG Wells and staged by Orson Welles, who then directed his troupe theater, the Mercury Theater. To add realism to his adaptation, Welles was then aired for the presenter of a regular music show, which suddenly interrupted his program to leave the antenna to report live an invasion of Martians on the East Coast the United States. With the sound effects and crowd cries recorded in the background, the staging was so convincing and realistic that thousands of people fell into the trap.
The story goes that the CBS and the authority’s telephone boards were flooded with calls from scared people who said they had also seen Martians. Welles and the CBS hastened to recall that it was only a theatrical adaptation, broadcast during the popular show Mercury Theater on The Air, but the damage was already done. The next day, the press seized the case, and a large part of the population demanded that they answer for their actions in court. The CBS and Welles escaped with public apologies, and this program allowed the now-famous director to obtain his first film contract, and to realize his masterpiece, Citizen Kane. He later became one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema.
So, during the holiday season, if someone tells you about a conspiracy theory that he has newly discovered on social networks, and that comes from a site with hundreds of thousands of followers, there is maybe some good reasons to beware. And, if you want my humble opinion, and very personal, with the happy reunion that is announced with family and friends, is probably better to enjoy, while it passes, a few moments of respite that loom to empty the sad false news, and instead enjoy every present moment to replenish positive energies for the new year. This is ultimately what matters most in life. Because time passes inexorably.
With all that said, I wish you all very pleasant moments during the meetings of the Holidays and wish to find you in 2018 for the publication of my new book. Then, I suggest you listen of Pink Floyd’s song Breathe (Reprise) on Dark Side of the Moon during these peaceful moments: ¨Home, home again, I like to be here when I can, When I come home cold and tired, It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire¨.
To pleasure and happiness, for all of you.