By Lisa Hester, Senior Account Manager
Leonard Pozner had a 6-year-old son who was among the 20 children and six adults killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Since then, Pozner has been actively trying to get websites to delete posts alleging that the massacre was a hoax. But his efforts have been stopped short by Automattic, the operator of WordPress.com, which has said “untrue content is not banned.”
What? After all the recent talk about banning “fake news” on the internet, how is this possible? Actually, it’s not only still possible, but still an everyday occurrence. Although the leadership at Facebook and Google, for example, has initiated some necessary steps to squelch fake news on their respective sites… even YouTube is investing $25 million to “improve its news features, joining Facebook, Apple and parent company Google in campaigns to curb fake news ahead of the U.S. midterm elections”…fake news still flourishes on the web.
But not all fake news is related to politics or hard news, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Companies and/or the goods they sell can be targets, too. The writers use just enough information to make the story sound believable and, often, to instill fear in the reader.
In many cases, “the articles themselves are just filler stuffed with high-trending, low competition keywords associated with current news stories,” SEO expert Joseph Finkelstein explains. “The way they make money is all in the headlines—they’re designed to be inflammatory but just believable enough to entice partisans to click on them—or better yet, share them—without looking too hard.”
In looking at examples of fake news, it’s interesting to note that brands both big and small have been targeted. That includes local pizza places, even funeral homes. Any company can find themselves in the crosshairs. So what do you do if your client or company becomes the focus of a fake news story? And, if not the company itself, but “bad” news about the type of goods it sells?
- First and foremost, have a plan in place. Just as you have a crisis communications plan, make sure yours also addresses fake news.
- Act decisively and immediately to nip it in the bud, and go full force with it.
As an example, Starbucks may be one of the biggest brands in recent past to suffer from fake news complaints with the fake story about “Dreamer Day,” in which it was alleged that Starbucks was giving a discount to undocumented immigrants Aug. 11 of last year. Starbucks came out immediately and said that it was not true. Yet the “news” sparked intense backlash online, and many people simply viewed it as lying and backpedaling by Starbucks. Unfortunately, Starbucks lost those customers forever, but I contend the damage could have been worse had they simply dismissed the story as fake news and done nothing.
- Reach out to the source(s) of the fake news. Give them solid facts to dispute their claims and ask for a retraction.
- Continue to monitor. Stay vigilant about monitoring the fake news content. One it’s out there, it may spread. Make sure you are aware if the fake news is repeated elsewhere and, if so, that you address those additional mentions with the same vigor.
- Legal action. Also consider that if someone has deliberately or negligently lashed out at your brand and is the source of a story that you can prove has caused the brand damage, you may have a legal case.