The Serious Danger Of Fake News On Social Media [+Examples]
Killer dugongs on the loose!! — fake news on social media?
Moreton Bay tourism has suffered a dramatic hit as locals report being pursued by killer dugongs. According to terrified snorkelers, the immense sea-cows have been slowly emerging from the watery haze, plodding along the seafloor and gnashing their teeth with a famished look. They’re even targeting children!
A local genetics laboratory claims no responsibility, but the wider Brisbane community is blaming them regardless, and calling for a boycott of their unsafe and un-Australian practices.
Of course, this nightmare scenario isn’t true. Dugongs are adorable mounds of blubber that feed on seagrass, who certainly haven’t grown teeth and decided to attack unsuspecting Australians. This is an example of fake news, and how it can spread quickly, maliciously, and if you’re engaged in social marketing, can damage the reputation of your business.
Original dugong photo before editing
Table of contents
What is fake news?
Fake news is incorrect or misleading information presented as news, often shared across social networks. These are some common reasons for its creation:
- To generate clicks/website visits for the publisher, which earns them advertising revenue and improves their SEO.
- To promote an idea or ideology.
- To damage someone’s reputation, for example a political opponent.
Because fake news has a valuable agenda, it tends to use shock tactics designed to evoke intense emotions, which makes it more shareable and likely to spread faster. Social media platforms like Facebook also offer advert targeting with incredible precision, and can reach audiences who are highly likely to be influenced by the propaganda. Considering that 55% of US adults receive their news from social media, there’s strong potential for fake news posts to go viral.6
Fake news can be found on pretty much every corner of the internet. The most common sources of are:
- Content created on the social media platforms themselves
- “News” websites lacking in real journalism
- Conspiracy theory websites
- YouTube channels
- State-run disinformation websites, such as those run by Russia to influence the 2016 U.S election7
- Satirical sites (like The Onion) that can spiral out of control when taken out of context
It’s believed that fake news entered the public’s consciousness in 2016, when Buzzfeed editor Craig Silverman identified a stream of made-up stories originating from the same Eastern European town.1 Since then, fake news has become a major problem that has swayed elections,4 influenced major political referendums such as Brexit,2 and has harmed the credibility of every piece of content on social media, fake news or otherwise. This has profound implications for businesses who engage in social marketing, which we’ll explore in more detail later.
“Fake news” interest on Google, from 2015 to present. Data from Google Trends
In America, fake news joined the public discourse during Donald Trump’s election campaign. You might recall a reference to the “Bowling Green Massacre” by US Counsellor Kellyanne Conway—a fictitious conflict used to promote America’s need for tighter borders. This fake news validated the political agenda of the Republican party at the time, and was lapped up by conservative voters, their loyalty to the party strengthened.
In an Orwellian doublespeak twist, fake news has been given a second meaning by Donald Trump, who uses the term for any mainstream media content that he doesn’t agree with, or that goes against his political agenda. This media often come from some of the most reputable newspapers and outlets in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC. In fact, he goes so far as to say that every reporter is guilty of producing fake news5—a dangerous idea given how important journalism is for democracy.
Spread of fake news on social media
The spread of fake news on social media has been lightning-fast because it's designed to evoke a strong emotional reaction. It’s often eye-catching, outrageous, and highly shareable, and when it addresses a topic that resonates with its intended audience on social media, it can spread like crazy. This makes fake news a type of clickbait that can generate conversation around a topic and dramatically increase your social views. If you’re a business, it can also increase your advertising revenue, which makes it very tempting for companies who are trying to get their brands out there.
But it isn’t a risk worth taking. Clickbait has contributed to the meteoric rise of fake news, and it can damage your brand to the point of killing it. When a false message goes viral it’s poured into the public’s consciousness, and if your customers realise they’ve been fooled, they can turn their backs on your brand forever, which damages your credibility, shrinks your audience, and slashes your revenue.
Fake news social media statistics
Social media is a primary source of information for many people, which puts them at risk for consuming and sharing fake news. These are some of the most telling fake news social media statistics:
- A global study of almost 20,000 people found that 62% believe there to be a fair extent or great deal of fake news on online websites and platforms (including social media).19
- 67% of US adults say they’ve come across false information on social media.21
- Most people have an average level of difficulty identifying fake news online, which ranges from “somewhat easy” to “somewhat difficult.”20
- Social media is the second most popular source of information about news and current affairs in the entire world.17
- 40% of selected companies from across the world agreed that it is “somewhat appropriate” for technology companies to provide fact checks with content.18
Fake news and social media—how is Facebook responsible?
Facebook has an intelligent AI system that learns people’s content habits, and then curates content that it believes they want to see. Every person’s news feed is based on this algorithm, and it’s incredibly powerful, eventually creating a “bubble” in which people’s beliefs are reinforced by content that Facebook is serving to them. This makes fake news and social media a potent partnership, and is one of the reasons for the extreme political polarization in the US, as well as the popularity of conspiracy theories. When fake news ramps up, there’s no way for the algorithm to distinguish real from fake, so it presents the content to readers as if they were the same. This distinction can only be made by a team of moderators—a colossal task for a social media platform with almost 3 billion users.16
Facebook is a platform where both producers and consumers of content are combined into one mass audience. Creating content is now quick, cheap, and easy to spread, which has shifted content creation from just media companies to everyone. It’s as though every person on the planet has been given a soapbox and megaphone, which has allowed them to swamp people with “truths” designed to influence, disrupt, and cause chaos.
The effect of fake news on social media
Fake news on social media is pernicious because of how easily it’s shared. A fake news story can have millions of consumers in a matter of minutes, which makes it a potent propaganda tool that can be used by corrupt governments, political parties, companies, and individuals.
For example, in 2016, a fake news story about the Pope endorsing Candidate Trump went viral.9 It reached 1.2 million people through the power of social media. Might this have affected the outcome of the election?
Also in 2016 in the UK, 52% of their citizens voted for Britain to leave the European Union, with social media groups awash with fake news that promoted the so-called disadvantages of EU membership. Dominic Cummings, the conservative mastermind behind the “Vote Leave” campaign, spearheaded their efforts with a bright red bus that had the words “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” on it. This turned out to be a fabrication—fake news of the highest order, that may have influenced millions of Brits into making an ill-informed decision on arguably the most important British issue since WW2.8 A 2018 study estimates this to be costing the British economy about £350 million a week,10 which in a cruel twist of fate, is the exact same figure as the number produced by the fake news campaign. This would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
Back in America, the dangerous combination of fake news and social media had serious consequences during “Pizzagate”—a conspiracy theory that claimed to link high-ranking democrats with a human trafficking and child sex ring, linked to a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. The theory has since been debunked (as with most outlandish conspiracy theories) but at the time, one Trump supporter was so furious with the evil of the democrats that he shot the lock off the restaurant and broke in to search it. The restaurant owner and staff also received death threats from believers of the conspiracy theory.3
This kind of fake news has helped to create extreme political partisanship in America, with Republicans and Democrats becoming more and more polarised and refusing to see each other’s point of view. Fake news on social media fuels this polarisation and promotes extreme thinking,11 which leads to less cooperation, more segregation, and even violence.12 As fake news continues to reach the eyes and ears of Americans, and the social media’s AI systems become ever-better at targeting them with adverts, the problem will become worse until the platforms themselves start to introduce stricter controls, something they’re hesitant to do because adverts are so lucrative, and fake news highly engaging.
From a business point of view, fake news, malicious targeting and social media scandals have crippled many companies. They’re at risk of sharing fake news that goes viral, suddenly finding themselves on the world stage for content that they didn’t even create, taking a massive hit to their reputation and customer numbers. Food giant Coca-Cola was the victim of fake news back in 2016, when a story claiming that one of their water-manufacturing plants had been shut down by the FDA, after finding a parasite in their water. Coca-Cola denounced the story, but who knows the damage that it did?22
Impact of fake news on social media marketing
With so many people distrusting the news that they find on social media, and finding it fairly difficult to identify, businesses who engage in social media marketing can expect their own content to be more scrutinized. This makes it more important than ever to produce accurate, well-researched, high-quality content that screams credibility (more info on how to do this later), and to train your marketing team on the dangers of sharing fake news. These actions will help to promote a healthy brand image for your firm, boost your Net Promoter Score, and ultimately, create more loyal customers.
Unfortunately, the fake news infection has already taken hold, so businesses who create or share news posts may see a drop in their stats. The best thing to do is keep producing high-quality content for SEO purposes, and hope that the companies running the social platforms become more proactive with minimising fake news, and that governments introduce legislation that forces their hand.
Examples of fake news on social media
Using onions to “catch” COVID-19
This post on Facebook described how an onion could “catch” the COVID-19 virus. Given how deadly the virus has shown to be, killing millions of people across the planet, this kind of fake news is the most devastating. People need timely and accurate information to avoid catching the virus, and this post was shared 2000 times.13
COVID-19 vaccines edit your DNA
According to this post, a tiny nanotechnology robot is being injected as part of the COVID vaccine, which edits your DNA and “reeks havoc in your system.” This was another highly popular post that was shared across Facebook and Instagram, which eventually included fact check warnings on them.
Labor’s death tax—the perfect fake news and social media combo
In Australia in 2019, warnings of a 40% “death tax” upon a Labor election win circulated like wildfire, with politicians struggling to convince voters of its absurdity.16 Nobody knows how this might have swayed the election results in favour of the Liberal Party, or whether it came from the party themselves, a voter, or even a foreign government.
Fake news image shared across social media about Labor’s death tax
Harmful ingredients in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
In 2017, a pseudoscience media mogul published an article describing how the ingredients in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups can damage fertility, create gastrointestinal problems in kids, and also cause vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, and collapse. The science behind the claims was outdated and factually incomplete, which essentially made the article fake news.15 Despite this, it was shared 207,000 times on Facebook.14
This Twitter post during the 2020 U.S election was retweeted over 10,000 times, and is such a mishmash of information that it’s difficult to even explain it. The post is by a US congressional candidate and QAnon conspiracy theorist, who believes that Beyoncé is pretending to be African American to promote the Black Lives Matter movement, which he believes is an operation of the so-called Deep State. The fact that this is posted by somebody with even the slightest chance of being elected to congress highlights the real danger of fake news on social media.
How can you identify fake news?
Fake news is effective because it resembles real stories, made believable with clever language and manipulation of digital imagery. It’s also difficult to identify because of the quick-consumption culture of social media, where people endlessly scroll through their feeds and often share content without reading it, especially if they can garner their own likes in return.
Social media is often used for brief and easy entertainment, not somewhere people go to critically engage with content. When fake news is executed well, subtly describing a believable story, it can be incredibly difficult to spot.
But spot it we can. Here's how to validate the reliability and accuracy of information, so you can identify fake news more easily:
- Reputation of the organisation: does the organisation who is sharing the information have a reputation for good journalism, for example The Wall Street Journal?
- Reputation of the individual: does the content include a creator, and can you Google that person to determine their background and credibility?
- Purpose of the content: what is the creator trying to achieve with this content? Are they trying to entertain you, educate you, influence you, or mislead you? Analysing the content’s purpose can help to detect possible misinformation.
- References: does the content contain references from reputable sources?
- Scope and completeness: is the topic being covered with the right amount of depth? Some things are extremely complicated, and require a lot of background information to properly understand. This needs extensive research and experience to do well, which many fake news stories lack.
- Balance: does the creator address both sides of the argument? Or is it one-sided?
- Objectivity: does the content contain referenced facts from reputable sources? Or is it purely opinion?
- Timeliness: are referenced sources still true today? Science is constantly evolving, so the content should only include references to information that remains true.
- The target audience: consider the target audience of the content. It’s clear that Fox News is for republicans, so if you’re reading an article from them that disparages democrats, there’s clear grounds for skepticism.
How to stop fake news on social media
It's clearly a massive problem, so how to stop fake news on social media? The major social networks are already adding disclaimers to certain posts. This was most notable during Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, when Twitter started to hide his posts behind fact check warnings or just remove them altogether, much to the president’s chagrin.
Here are some steps you can take to slow the spread of fake news on social media.
Fact check fake news on social media
If you suspect that a post is fake news, go through the various checks outlined in the “how can you identify fake news” section above. This list provides everything you need to become a fake news detective.
This is even more important if you’re a company considering sharing a piece of content, because sharing fake news can do irreparable damage to your brand.
There’s a variety of Chrome extensions that automatically verify posts in your social feed. These include:
- FiB: Stop living a life
- B.S Detector
- Media Bias/Fact Check
- This Is Fake
Report posts to combat fake news and social media
Facebook has a feature that allows you to flag and report posts that you believe to be false—a critical action that helps their moderators to stem the tide. Twitter and LinkedIn also have similar reporting features.
Call it out
If you’re certain that a social post is fake news, respond to the post with some reasons why you believe it to be fake, referencing credible sources where possible.
What should businesses do about fake news?
The impact of fake news on company value is a genuine threat. Fake news can do immense damage to a business, so to mitigate the menace, try to follow these recommendations:
- Don’t promote fake news—lazy sharing or a lack of fact checking can make you a promoter of fake news. Never post or share unsubstantiated reports or rumours. This greatly damages your reputation and, given the nature of the internet, could result in large-scale embarrassment.
- Use and cite credible sources—many readers are becoming increasingly sceptical of sponsored content. To combat this, it’s imperative to use credible resources in your content, and cite them. This makes content well-labelled and gives the reader the information they need to make up their own mind.
- Create authentic content—content that is created with a desire to genuinely help people always shines through. Make sure the content you create is honest, authentic, and addresses the key points for the topic. On a separate note, to keep your content efforts on the right track, make sure you measure your content using the most important metrics for content marketing.
- Accurate headlines—ensure that your headlines and content titles are an accurate representation of the content, and that your images are appropriate.
- Train your team—make sure your team can identify fake news and that they know exactly how damaging it can be to your business.
- Good viral content—use what you know about fake news to go viral in a good way: with emotionally engaging content, “shareable” articles, and excellent imagery.
- Create a strategy—put a strategy in place now to defend yourself if you’re caught up in a scandal. Fake news on social media can be terribly damaging to your business.
- Mike Wendling, 2018, The (almost) complete history of 'fake news', BBC
- Max Hänska, 2017, (PDF) Tweeting for Brexit: how social media influenced the referendum, ResearchGate
- Cecilia Kang, 2016, Fake News Onslaught Targets Pizzeria as Nest of Child-Trafficking (Published 2016), The New York Times
- Jenna Marina Lee, 2020, How Fake News Affects US Elections | University of Central Florida News, UCF Today
- Donald Trump: 'It's called fake news', BBC
- Peter Suciu, 2019, More Americans Are Getting Their News From Social Media, Forbes
- Julian E. Barnes, David E. Sanger, 2020, Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Coronavirus Pandemic, The New York Times
- John Lichfield, 2017, Boris Johnson’s £350m claim is devious and bogus. Here’s why, The Guardian
- Did the Pope Endorse Trump?, Factcheck.org
- Benjamin Born, Gernot Müller, Moritz Schularick, Petr Sedláček, 2019, £350 million a week: The output cost of the Brexit vote | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, VOXEU
- Peter Suciu, 2019, Does Social Media Make The Political Divide Worse?, Forbes
- Zaid Jilani, Jeremy Adam Smith, 2019, What Is the True Cost of Polarization in America?, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine
- Debunked: No, leaving onions around your home won't 'catch' the coronavirus, The Journal
- LibGuides: Fake News: Separating Truth From Fiction: 4. Fake News Examples, Valencia College
- Three Reasons You Should Stop Eating Peanut Butter Cups, Snopes
- • Facebook MAU worldwide 2020, Statista
- • Main news source in countries worldwide 2020, Statista
- • Attitudes to online content fact checks by companies worldwide 2020, Statista
- • Media sources believed to contain fake news worldwide 2019, Statista
- • Identifying false information online in countries worldwide 2020, Statista
- 2017, Coca-Cola rebuts fakes news story about Dasani recall – RetailWire, RetailWire