“Fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s good advice for content marketers… until it isn’t.
Although a touch of faux confidence might lend an authoritative tone to an email blast, leaning on sensational statistics you found under clickbait headlines can quickly erode the credibility of your content.
Thanks to factors like social media, digital self-publishing tools and 24/7 news cycles, information is all too easy to spread, whether it’s true or false. Fake news can fool anyone. And most people will be pretty annoyed when they find out they’ve been duped.
If you want to build trust and authority for your brand, you’ll need to be careful about what you say and how you spin it. Let’s take a look at the challenges and opportunities the fake news era holds for content marketers committed to speaking the truth.
What Is Fake News?
Fake news refers to misinformation presented as factual news, often with the intent to deceive or manipulate audiences. It encompasses a range of false content, from fabricated stories to misleading headlines and manipulated images and videos.
For as long as it’s been possible to spread real-deal news, it’s been possible to spread fake news. My favorite old-school journalistic hoax? When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the creator of Sherlock Holmes — published photographs of “real” garden fairies in 1920.
“The cry of ‘fake’ is sure to be raised,” wrote Conan Doyle, adding that, if the images should “hold their own against the criticism which they will excite, it is no exaggeration to say that they will mark an epoch in human thought.”
The pictures were staged by two girls as a bit of family fun. But Conan Doyle had a motivation to believe and spread the story: Evidence of fairies aided his argument for spiritualism.
Why Does Fake News Exist?
Fast-forward 100 years from that fake news fairy tale, and self-serving motives are still driving the spread of misinformation. Here are a few of the reasons why fake news exists:
- It’s incredibly easy to create: The ease and speed with which information spreads on the internet make it susceptible to manipulation. Social media platforms serve as breeding grounds for the rapid dissemination of misleading content.
- It generates audience engagement: The quest for user engagement incentivizes the creation and sharing of sensationalized stories, even at the expense of accuracy. Publishers may care more about generating clicks, likes and shares than getting the facts straight.
- It can be profitable: The economic incentives tied to online advertising contribute to the proliferation of fake news. Clickbait titles attract more engagement, which translates into higher ad revenue.
- It contributes to public opinion: Political motivations and the desire to shape public opinion play a significant role in the propagation of fake news. In some cases, individuals or groups deliberately spread false information to advance their agenda, sway public sentiment or undermine trust in established institutions.
The digital media landscape also makes it difficult for audiences to know what’s trustworthy, what’s fake news and what’s not. Sponsored content shows up at the top of every Google SERP. #Ads are sprinkled throughout your social media feed. Non-news opinions are loudly expressed and vigorously spread — even by online newspapers and broadcast news stations.
It’s confusing! And it’s hard to slow down the spread. Although only a small percentage of people (about 10%) knowingly spread disinformation, social media algorithms are designed to boost high-engagement content to viral heights.
As TechCrunch reported, Facebook acknowledged it has a problem in 2016 after “an entire cottage industry” of content creators was found intentionally clogging up the platform’s news feeds with fake stories related to the 2018 U.S. presidential election.
Although years have passed since that period, today’s marketers must still be on their guard as they create and share content.
The Content Marketer
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Why Fake News is Bad News for Content Marketers
Even for businesses that don’t spread fake news, the mere existence of this type of malicious content can undermine any organization’s credibility and its marketers’ efficacy.
Here are some of the biggest issues fake news presents to both B2B and B2C digital marketing professionals:
- It erodes consumer trust: Marketers work hard to build trust with their audiences, but jaded content consumers may be wary of what they see.
- It can damage a brand’s reputation: If a brand mistakenly shares misinformation, audiences will be quick to question its credibility and label the brand as either careless or malicious.
- It can reduce audience engagement: Questionable content leads to confusion and skepticism. A brand’s audience members may disengage entirely if they feel like they’re being presented with untrustworthy or unreliable information.
- It poses ethical concerns: Content marketers are responsible for creating and distributing accurate and reliable information. Missteps can have serious consequences for a brand, potentially leading to legal issues and a loss of credibility in the long run.
- It disrupts decision-making: Brands want to empower their audiences to make informed decisions, but fake content can mislead consumers and negatively impact the decision-making process.
- It’s bad for SEO: Search engines prioritize trustworthy and authoritative content. If a brand’s website becomes associated with phony or low-quality content, its search rankings will suffer.
How Content Marketers Can Fall into the Fake News Trap
It’s safe to say that content marketing fake news can leave a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. Case in point: the great bacon shortage of 2017.
Although there wasn’t actually an impending shortage, the Ohio Pork Council created a misleading website at baconshortage.com, where it discussed the declining U.S. pork reserves. The content involved real data spun in a misleading manner.
Media outlets quickly picked up on the story, claiming that a shortage of bacon was imminent. The narrative foretold scarcity and rising prices, sending bacon-loving businesses and consumers into a tizzy. But, as the New York Times later reported, “Bacon Shortage? Calm Down, It’s Fake News.”
Consumers need to know they can trust the information they receive on topics like food availability and safety. Businesses need reliable information about materials shortages so they can adapt. Whether the voices behind this baloney story intended harm, it had the very real potential to impact public perception and market dynamics.
Unless you want your organization to be guilty of unethical marketing, avoid:
- Creating content based on phony source material.
- Incorrectly interpreting statistics in marketing.
- Making misleading claims based on factual data.
- Re-sharing disinformation from seemingly legitimate sources.
Strengthening Your Content Marketing in the Age of Fake News
Despite the risks associated with fake news, there’s a silver lining for content creators: a growing demand for trustworthy sources.
If you’re a marketer, it’s your responsibility to maintain journalistic integrity. So, here are some ways you can create content that shines without relying on fake news:
- Do good research: Conduct detailed research about your subject matter. Seek out and cite authoritative sources. Fact-check your work before hitting publish.
- Look at the original source: Follow the story or statistic back to its original source to check for authenticity.
- Consult internal experts: Speak with your brand’s own experts to gather original insights and amplify your organization’s expertise.
Let’s use a real fake news story example to demonstrate how easy this can be.
In 2022, a story came out about Disney World’s alleged battle with the Florida government to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. It racked up millions of TikTok views before landing on a local ABC News station. Sounds legit, right? If your business has anything to do with travel, theme parks or alcohol, this may be a story worth sprinkling into your content strategy.
Well, if you look at the original source, you’ll see that the story and TikTok video were created by Mouse Trap News. As the outlet’s “about” page proudly explains, it’s a “trusted” source for “fake stories about Disney Parks […] you can be assured that anything you read here is not true, real, or accurate, but it is fun.”
Aha! Now you know not to cite that story as real news. Instead, allow it to spark ideas for related topics you could explore for your content. This will take more time and creativity, but it’ll be worth it. Whatever you create, you’ll build more trust through transparency and authenticity than you will by being the first to share the latest clickbait.
Striking the Balance Between Attention-Grabbing and Accurate Content
As marketers, it’s up to us to combat misinformation by creating content that’s both compelling and truthful.
By prioritizing quality research, correct sourcing, factual insights and transparency, marketers can cut through the content chaos and inform their audiences.
In the age of fake news, this is not only a professional responsibility but an ethical imperative. Every marketer loves a quick win, but don’t let your brand’s success come at the cost of its credibility. By standing for the truth, you can make a positive impact that stretches far beyond your content’s success.