Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Fake news, according to the Urban Dictionary, is the only news Trump loves. On a more serious note, Collins Dictionary defines it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Collins Dictionary revealed Fake News to be the Word of the Year for 2017.

In the past decade or two, fake news stories and entire fake news sites have proliferated with the growth of the Internet and social media. Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said the Internet was becoming a breeding ground for false information as far back as 2008, according to a an Ad Age report. We know this to be true, and 10 years later, it’s more alarming than ever.

There is no doubt that fake news is bad for business. It’s bad for society. It is an existential crisis we can no longer ignore – one that leads to mistrust and divisiveness. 

Increasingly, businesses are becoming extremely concerned about their ads being placed on fake news sites and about the spreading of fake stories pertaining to their brands. Financial Times reported that Snopes, the fact checking site, compiled a top 50 of “hot” fake news stories, and 12 were about companies.

Industry response to fake news

The Drum reported that a recent BrightRoll survey revealed that 96% of advertisers are worried about fake news in programmatic advertising, but that this concern is not great enough for them to give up programmatic advertising and lose the benefits it provides in reach, efficiency, and precise audience targeting.

Bolder brands, like Unilever, recently threatened that they would remove their global ad spend from Google and Facebook, should these companies not address the matter of serving ads to fake news, terrorist and porn sites. Recently, in some countries, the likes of Nestle, Vodafone, Toyota, Caltex, and Ford have pulled millions of dollars out of adspend. This global boycott has begun to force tech giants to take action.  

One of the big drives of Interactive Advertising Bureau SA is the fight against fake news and for brand safety. According to the IAB SA Head of the Publishing Council, Marc du Plessis, “We are working hard at highlighting the importance of buying digital ads in safe environments versus buying open market ‘bottom of the pit’ inventory. Most SA Publishers offer access programmatically, and can deliver high volume and performance at a fair price.”

The big take-out

Don’t over- or underreact to fake news; remember to educate consumers, and make sure you have a good crisis communication plan in place to counter fake news.

How to combat fake news

Riana Smit, head of digital for Old Mutual Iwyze, has the following advice for brands on how to combat this growing epidemic and minimise the impact.

“First”, says Smit, “neither overreact nor underreact. Define fake news and be clear on your understanding of a crisis.”

“Second, educate. Let’s look at the financial industry for example. Consumers understanding of financial products are not always high: they are often complicated financial products influenced by a huge number of rules and regulations.  The task for brands is to make sure that customers understand what they are getting and paying for, and importantly, what they are not getting and paying for. Consumers are often quick to judge before getting all the facts, leading to ‘viral outrage’ on social media.”

“Third, have a good crisis communication plan in place. Make sure you have a team in place and an action plan for any time your brand is the center of attention as a result of the fake news. Be clear on your definition of a crisis – not every piece of bad news or negative headline will result in a crisis. Create communication guidelines, including rules for communicating with key stakeholders and when, how and what updates are posted on your website and social media pages. Monitor everything. The moment a crisis occurs, stop scheduled posts, inform your team and publicly acknowledge what is going on. Conduct a post-crisis assessment reviewing the brand impact, review your actions and update your plan with learnings from the crisis in order to prepare for the next one.”

“The game has changed, almost everybody now has the ability to be a journalist or a source of information, with no editor to correct false information or spelling mistakes. Make sure you have systems in place to monitor what is said about your brand and make sure you detect fake news quickly because it does have an influence on public perception. Once a negative comment is posted about your brand on any platform, it’s there forever,” says Smit.

We can no longer deny the power of the Internet. It’s an enormously beneficial platform which provides people globally with access to information. However, a lack of digital literacy and the growth of false information, we have a responsibility to always be proactive rather than reactive in order to protect our brands.

• Carmen Murray is founder of Boo-Yah! and host of the #WITEE Chatterbots Show (Women in Tech Empowering Everyone). She was also a guest speaker at the IAB SA Digital Summit 2018 held earlier this year.