First it came for the politicians – and now fake news is coming for marketers

As long as there is money to be made, fake news will continue to flood the internet – so now more than ever marketers and advertisers need to be vigilant to the threats, write the IAB Singapore's Heikal Mohamed and Tom Jones-Barlow

A baby miraculously survived 12 days in the burned-out husk of London’s Grenfell Tower before being found by rescuers. A heart-warming tale that emerged from such a tragic event – or so it might seem according to the viral story that spread like wildfire on social media.

In reality, no such thing happened, but the story unsurprisingly made its rounds on social media, garnering 336,000 shares on Facebook in its first two days. Obviously, there is demand for this content.

The story displayed some of the classic of hallmarks of fake news, including the URL bearing the name of a real news site – in this case, British free daily the Metro – while using the ‘Breaking News’ image asset of another news site, the BBC. Associating with known news brands delivers straightforward benefits, providing legitimacy to a fabricated story, which already resonates with an audience eager to share.

Fake news is not in any way a new phenomenon. What’s changed is the scale at which fake news creators can distribute their content, by exploiting credulous audiences and their power to share within their digital social networks, amplifying and accelerating their reach. Marketers are intimately familiar with this, especially those who have expertise in word-of-mouth marketing.

Intuitively, fake news and word-of-mouth both take advantage of the same human desires to share resonant messages to amplify seeded-content beyond the originator’s reach. As valuable as this is to marketers, it is potentially even more so to unscrupulous players.

In fact, the gold standard of profitable execution belongs to the tech-savvy teenagers of Veles, Macedonia, who have proven themselves highly capable in exploiting American audiences at scale for personal gain during the 2016 United States Presidential elections.

The Grenfell tower article, for example, would have generated almost US$20,000 in revenue for the publishers, as you can see in the table below.

It’s unclear where exactly the publishers of this specific article come from, but had they originated from Macedonia, this amount would have been 3.7 times the country’s annual GDP per capita in 2016.

Moves by Google and Facebook post-elections to ban fake news sites from using their respective advertising networks, has stemmed only a portion of the cash flow that fake news can potentially generate. And the algorithms can’t always keep up.

While the Grenfell tower story represents yet another tasteless exploitation of a gullible audience for advertising revenue, fake news is more than a simple revenue play. It also represents a channel to derive additional value for other shady actors who might wish to push propaganda that can have real, powerful consequences, especially in politics.

Fake news providers have even begun to offer pricing packages on fake news campaigns, akin to how a legitimate news provider positions content marketing offerings.

Because social networks are key to how misinformation is spread, markets in South East Asia are also vulnerable. Earlier this year in Indonesia, fake stories around hot-button topics like race and religion dogged the hotly contested Jakarta gubernatorial election. There, fake news had helped to turn the tables against early favourite and incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, eventually leading to his defeat.

Tom Jones-Barlow

Outside of politics, brands are also at risk. For example, shoe company Bata lost RM500,000 (US$116,754) within a month after a fabricated story about it selling shoes with the Arabic word ‘Allah’ on the soles surfaced in February this year.

The backlash on social media thanks to the story led to a recall of the products, and by the time Bata was cleared of any wrongdoing by the country’s officials, the damage had already been done. Additionally, the shoe company decided to take an extra step to distance itself from this episode by redesigning the shoes. This instance illustrates how quickly the damage from fake news can be caused, and how slow mitigating responses can be.

The threat of fake news is very real. With more people getting connected for the first time and inexperienced about the darker side of the internet, this problem is only set to grow. Regulators in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines are already considering their responses, via legislation, regulatory bodies, and educational resources.

But the reality remains that for as long as there is money to be made – and opinions to be validated and swayed – fake news will keep on coming. For marketers and advertisers, fake news is an additional challenge that sits adjacent to other hygiene factors, especially brand safety, and that would require similar considerations.

Heikal Mohamed

For the industry as a whole, managing brand safety and fake news is not a straightforward task. From the brands’ perspective, subjective judgment is required to define relevant contexts.

Brands and their agency, media, and tech partners need to identify and deploy relevant preventive and mitigating solutions. Measurement reviews and appropriate takedown policies need to be implemented, and this all has to happen with some appetite to accept the imperfect nature of the tools. The challenge is complex, but not insurmountable.

Heikal Mohamed is a senior manager of business intelligence at Singapore Press Holdings and Tom Jones-Barlow is a media director at APD. Both are members of the IAB Singapore Measurement, Standards and Data Committee.


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