What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Fake News’

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Perhaps it takes German lawmakers to remind us that “fake news” is not defined as anything we choose it to mean. While Germany’s newly proposed social-media bill makes its way toward that country’s Parliament, here in the United States powerful voices have co-opted the term.

Germany’s got it right — “fake news” is actually about stories written to win clicks (and potentially do harm). Losing the focus on this accurate definition to spin and political jockeying creates a challenge for the business of marketers, advertisers, and publishers. It is about malicious business conducted for profit.

Unless we steer the use of the phrase fake news back to these crucial definitions, the business of media will lose control of the central struggle of the moment for the entire industry. What follows is a reminder of what we mean when we talk about fake news, reclaiming the term and refocusing it on the media-business challenge.

  • What Fake NewsReally Means: Until fake news became a podium-thumping catch-all phrase — a term applied to news and information with which a speaker simply disagrees — the following definition was widely the one in play: fake news refers to online ads, links, and articles that attract traffic and clicks via sensational claims and/or outright falsehoods. These types of content are willfully placed by individuals not associated with news reporting; profit-seekers from locations as unexpected as Macedonia looking to make a quick buck.
  • How Fake News Makes Money for the Unscrupulous: By attracting clicks and traffic, the perpetrators of fake-news ads and articles scoop-up revenue; this income is largely the result of self-service online advertising platforms such as the ones offered by Facebook, Google, and others (although the problem goes back further than the most recent news cycle, online content creation has a history of content quantity sometimes being at odds with content quality). These computerized systems, typically unmonitored by editors, pay the makers of fake-news ads, links, and articles based on traffic and the resulting number of clicks or views acquired. The greater the volume, the bigger the payout. There are other models to profit from online user behavior and data, but this the primary fake news model.
  • Why Fake News is Bad for Advertisers (and Marketers, and Publishers): For above-board, lawful and consumer-first advertisers, unmonitored fake-news ads and links slip into the same premium publishing sites brands pay to carry their legitimate inventory. This turns otherwise desirable pages into minefields of negative content and harmful associations. The harm occurs when premium ads for a luxury car, or a high-end mattress, or any kind of product and service, appear on premium pages that also publish ads and links to untrue stories about celebrity deaths, actors’ bankruptcies, and false stories about election outcomes — just to mention a few recent examples. When this happens, fake news turns good advertising into compromised advertising. It turns premium publisher real estate into unattractive places to showcase a brand.
  • Stopping Fake News: The solution to the problem of fake news falls primarily to three participants in this influential First, publishers must deliver solutions to cut out fake-news ads and links and eliminate them from their various digital properties. Second, advertisers should hold publishers to that promise — pulling back ad dollars from publishers who don’t and reallocating their budgets to premium publishers who do. Third, marketers, especially in the sense of third-party marketing agency and technology partners,must step in. Marketing can be a powerful moderating force in this situation, demanding best practices on all sides of the equation, calling out and helping steer ad-allocation away from lackadaisical organizations that allow fake news to take root, but also celebrating and elevating the premium participants that don’t — and won’t —  turn a blind eye to the problem.

So fake news is a media-business problem, not a term to be used in dust-ups about political viewpoints and/or to denigrate information one simply dislikes.

And when reporters and publishers do get the facts or the analysis of a legitimate story wrong? That’s not fake news either — it’s inaccurate reporting, which should be called out and corrected. Luckily, there are longstanding traditions among premium publishers — and the public, and responsible public figures — that do just that. None of this involves or requires the word fake.

Powerful voices are clouding the nature of the fake-news problem — and the reality of what fake news means to publishers, advertisers, and marketers. In response, as symbiotic industries, we must understand and fight for what fake news truly means — the real fake news — because clarity on this phrase is central to the business of media. The words fake news must never turn into a political football. There is too much at stake. We’re in the middle of winning our own fight, the world of online publishing being as complex as it is, and we want our terminology back.

Julie Bernard is chief marketing officer at Verve where she leads the company’s brand strategy, marketing, analytics, and creative services. Julie was previously senior vice president of omnichannel customer strategy, data science, loyalty, and marketing technology at Macy’s, where she was recognized as a customer-centric leader implementing data-driven approaches for strategic growth.

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