Fake News and Its Impact on Marketing and Public Relations


While the ability for the internet to disseminate information to the public is better than 20 years old, the topic of ‘fake news’ has grown exponentially over just the last two years. Its rise, as a topic of campaigns, prime time debate and late night talk shows, spiked around the 2016 presidential election and Brexit, according to the Ethical Journalism Network.

But why is fake news the pressing issue that it is today, even though the ability to create it has been around since the printing press, and the ability to disseminate it widely has been in existence for over two decades?

The short answer comes down to the capability of fake news producers to effectively mask their efforts under the guise of legitimacy, as well as their ability to widely distribute their content to broad audiences using social media.

A study conducted by Statista found that 42% of fake news in 2017 was generated and distributed through social media in the United States. This is significant, as a study by the Pew Research Foundation recorded that 67% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media platforms.

And while fake news continues to proliferate among consumers, it is also having a substantial impact on how digital marketers buy advertising and how corporate communications professionals engage with media. Brands are justifiably concerned that sponsored content, “authentic” ads and press releases are finding their way onto fake news sites, undoubtedly risking brand reputation.  

Catherine Cottney, manager of trends at Mintel, states that, “With consumers more able to question and query the actions of brands, ‘radical transparency’ will be the watchword for 2018 as they [the brands] try and show they can be relied upon and trustworthy.” At the same time, brands must trust that platforms that have been channels for the proliferation of fake news, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and others, are doing their part to cut off access and revenue from sites that generate and spread fake news.

Commitment and validation from the most popular sites on the internet are important parts of the process, but that is just a start, and by itself will not solve the problem.

Brands also need to be able to arm themselves with tools that make the detection of fake news easier. In addition, they need to have plans in place to quickly respond to and mitigate the impact of fake news.

With practice, humans can hone their ability to better spot fake news in the following ways:

  • Considering the source: While consumers may appear to consume a high volume of news, based on the increase in public use of social media, it does not mean they view sources with a discerning eye. Links to stories are often disguised or hidden within posts that direct users to various, fraudulent sites. Be prepared and consider the publication you’re viewing.
  • Watching for obvious bias or polarization: Certainly opinion sections within any site have a tendency to lean a certain way, but it is up to you to detect the validity of the content.  If an article is overly prejudicial or tendentious, something is probably up.
  • Researching author biographies: Don’t let social media bots fool you. If you’re skeptical of the credibility of an author, check them out. Whether the accounts are verified or not, conduct your own investigation if you feel suspicious.

In addition, software is becoming more effective at helping brands detect fake news while limiting its ability to adversely impact insights measurement and decision making through:

  • Processing scale: Using sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence, fake news detection software has the ability to process hundreds, or thousands, of articles simultaneously, detecting nuances in the text or source of the content.
  • Removal of bias: Humans naturally bring bias to any content consumption, which is why fake news is so easy to proliferate. Machines can be trained to process content without confirmation or other types of cognitive biases.  
  • Algorithms and historical data: Machines also have perfect memory, giving them the ability to compare previous events to current events without any change in context or perception.

Overall, while fake news is a distraction to readers that induces unwarranted political and/or social debate, it’s important for professionals to differentiate their marketing tactics as they distribute earned media and advertise to consumers. The act of being candid and sincere with the public will, in the end, increase trust and improve the integrity of a brand’s image and social presence.