A) ‘Tourist bitten by massive crocodile after trying to take a selfie’
B) ‘Trump offering one-way ticket to Africa, Mexico for those who want to leave’
Which of these headlines is fake? (Answer below).
This exercise may seem amusing but the alarming spread of fake news is not.
The fake news industry was in overdrive during the US election with almost lethal affect when a gunman enraged by the fake story that the Clintons were running a child sex ring from a restaurant fired his weapon in a pizzeria. Fortunately no one was injured.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as reporting and spans the obviously made up US National Enquirer headlines, e.g. ‘Obama appoints Martian Ambassador’, to ‘floods’ of immigrants, featured in some tabloids.
The game changer now is the Internet.
It allows fake news to be launched from dubious websites via social media and spread like an epidemic.
During the US election 100 fake news sites were operating in the obscure Macedonia town of Veles alone. Owners were copying and pasting fake news stories, pictures and videos from other sources to rake-in cash through ads from Google’s Ad Sense. One teenager’s fake website attracted 650,000 viewings in one week.
Studies show fake news particularly appeals to people with prejudices or extremist agendas and who rarely access legitimate media outlets. It would be dangerous to shrug off this phenomenon as only associated with the gullible or bigoted. Polling organisation tests on cross-sections of the public reveal a majority fail to identify fake news.
Lies or ‘alternative facts’ are one extreme, but misleading headlines in the mainstream media (a form of click bait) and paid content chip away at perceptions of truth. In other words, there’s a spectrum of fake news.
Editorialising in news and blurring lines between editorial and PR are common practice, as is the move away from hard news towards soft ‘sad’ stories about people with potentially fatal cancer, for example. These, in my view, are the first steps towards fake news.
So what can be done?
In short, everyone has a role to play in stopping fake news. This means consumers, businesses, the news media, PR practitioners and the government must be involved in the fight back.
CONSUMERS: Stop clicking on the bait and, where possible, subscribe to media rather than simply relying on free content. Authentic journalism is expensive because it takes time to gather and, importantly, verify information. So-called free news is strangling it. Don’t share news from social media unless you’re sure it’s real.
BUSINESSES AND THEIR PRs: Don’t support fake or dubious news (including click-bait) through advertising budgets just because ‘everybody else is doing it’. Act ethically – always. PR people often get dismissed as paid liars but, believe it or not, ethical practice is hugely important and many would be surprised at the role PR professionals play in keeping communications true and accurate.
THE NEWS MEDIA: The landscape is rapidly changing and media outlets are scrambling to find a way to remain profitable. Some publications (NBR, New York Times and London’s Financial Times) have found a way to persuade consumers to pay for digital content but many media are struggling to transition from free to paid content. It’s a shame that some of the larger ones have chosen to ‘race to the bottom’ by filling their news sites and papers with click-bait and – to be frank – utter crap. Surely there must be a better way!
THE GOVERNMENT: The solution is simple: support public broadcasting. Start here by unlocking the budget freeze on Radio NZ. Nobody wins when media - particularly public service – is not funded for investigations into bad policies and practice on any side of the political divide.
The battle to preserve rigorous, investigative journalism and PR is vital to maintaining the intellectual health of future generations. It must be won.
Answer: B is the fake headline.