This article originally ran on PR Daily in February of 2017 and remains releveant today.
Corporate communicators are to blame for the fake news epidemic.
That’s surprising, perhaps, coming from a communications pro. Yet I wonder whether “communications pro” will be a job title if we continue down the path we started nearly 100 years ago.
Vox reported that the top 20 fake news stories outperformed real news at the end of the 2016 campaign, based on Facebook engagements from August to Election Day. We wondered whether Tim Kaine was in an open marriage (he wasn't), or whether Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t).
I won’t argue about politics and confirmation bias. I will assert that the corporate communications function (including marketing communications) paved the way for the adoption and proliferation of fake news.
Growing up, my favorite books were “Amelia Bedelia” by Peggy Parish (you don’t pitch a tent by throwing it, silly Amelia!) and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff. The latter taught me the risk of appeasement and the dreaded slippery slope—such as when you agree to let your sister-in-law spend the night and suddenly her cell phone bill is re-routed to your apartment.
As with all problems, follow the money. Fake news wasn’t always fake, but it looked like news. In the early 20th century, companies began buying space in the paper to place “advertorials,” a portmanteau of advertising and editorial. These placements are ads disguised as editorial content. (See a few examples here.)
Companies got cookie after cookie, so to speak, in the years following: sponsored radio content, sponsored TV programs and infomercials, ushering in the great age of BuzzFeed and other sponsored content hubs.BuzzFeed isn’t alone; Forbes has BrandVoice, and even The New York Times partakes.
You can’t fault publishers for taking the easy route and selling their platforms—or can you?
Companies are benefiting from sponsored content. Research published by DigitalRelevance revealed that in 2015, “25% more consumers looked at sponsored articles than display ad units and native ads have been found to produce 18% higher lift in purchase intent and 9% higher lift for brand affinity than banner ads.”
I am not accusing corporate communicators of writing fake news articles about the pope, but I am accusing them of softening up the public to the idea of non-news owning the news. Perhaps it is confirmation bias at play: We click and share what we want to believe.
Where, though, did our critical thinking skills go? A survey by Contently found that most people don’t distinguish between sponsored content and editorial; good luck deciphering fake news from real news. It becomes even more difficult when real news outlets realize they inherently compete with sources of fake news (and sponsored content) and must sensationalize beyond acceptable limits.
The legacy of advertorials
Fake news is the ugly evolutional cousin to the advertorials of old. Companies have no incentive to abandon sponsored content, which would cultivate informed, critical-thinking consumers. The slippery slope is now a cliff.
We are hurtling toward a reality in which the top story in your virtual reality glasses will either be “Marketers Say Soda May Reverse Cavities,” by Pep C. Cola, or “Liberals Scientifically Lack Spines” by author unknown. A battle for the human mind, waged by corporation against absurdity. No matter who wins, we lose.