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A few decades ago people could only receive news from, what we call today, traditional media sources, such as newspapers, radios and television. These sources were and still are trusted by people due to strict regulations their go through. However, times have changed, and easy access to the Internet has provided everyone with an opportunity to create, publish and share information and news without having any evidence or needed verification. Such freedom on online platforms has led us to the phenomenon known as “fake news”. Generally, the term is used to describe false information that is “intentionally circulated through mass media with the aim of misinforming citizens” or influencing their perception of certain things to increase traffic and maximize profit. Although fake news is one of the main concerns for marketers, they should also be aware of fake followers, a new trend on social media platforms, which has just as much impact on businesses as false advertising. Both of the mentioned issues, fake news and fake followers, will be discussed in this essay, in order to understand their influence on marketers and what can be done to avoid them.
The development of various technological devices and the creation of online channels have drastically changed people’s lives and made it easier to receive, process and share information with others. The shift from traditional media to new media was seen as an advantage until the rise of fake news. Many experts consider social media as a fertile ground for the spread of fake news, as the process of posting is simple and quick. As a matter of fact, a report by Statista (2017) discovered that almost half of fake news in the US was shared through social media, which is quite alarming considering that 67% of Americans receive their news from those platforms (Pew Research Center, 2017). With so many people now getting news from social media sites, many content creators and publishers have taken advantage of that by using fake news to gain more traffic and clicks on their adverts, which results in more profit (PPC). But these news can also affect the performance of real advertisements in several ways. For instance, websites that contain false or inaccurate information often try to gain credibility by including promotions of trusted brands on their platforms and placing them among fabricated “content that does not reflect, or that even conflicts with, a firm’s values” (Palmquist, 2019). This might not seem like a clear issue for many, but it has been observed that in most cases like that, consumers’ associations with the brand get destroyed and they are less likely to support it in the future (Visentin et al., 2019). Furthermore, Google penalizes fake sources and the ones that are linked to them by placing them lower on the search engine page, which affects ranking and visibility (SEM) of trusted websites (Digital Marketing Philippines, n.d.). Lastly, fake news can be used as a tool to destroy another brand’s reputation and to eliminate competitors. According to a research carried out by Twitter, false news is more likely to be shared than legitimate stories, and they reach more people in a shorter time period (The Drum, 2018). Many brands have suffered from the spread of fake information, because often it is difficult to track down the original source, but by the time it is found, the brand’s reputation has already been tainted.
One of the many brands that were affected by the spread of fake news is New Balance. The words of the brand’s spokesman were taken out of the context and shared on social media with the headline: “New Balance offers a wholesale endorsement of the Trump revolution”. The publishers misquoted the spokesperson saying that Obama had let them down and with Trump “things are going to move in the right direction”, when in reality the quote was referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership only. This false message spread like wildfire due to its controversy and bad timing, which was just before the US elections in 2016. The shared news caused a negative reaction among anti-Trump groups. As a sign of a protest they burned their New Balance shoes, and encouraged others to do the same by posting the process online, which significantly affected the reputation of the brand in a negative way.
On the other hand, the popularity of social media usage has created an opportunity for businesses to promote and sell their products directly to their target consumers through people they trust or through so-called influencers. Businesses choose accounts that represent their values and, most importantly, have a lot of followers, because the more followers accounts have, the more people they can reach. Now, who would not want to earn money by simply posting on their social media? This is when people started purchasing their followers to seem more appealing to businesses. For marketers, collaborating with accounts with high numbers of fake followers is risky, as it will not lead to the wanted outcome. The number one aim of social media promotions and campaigns is to grow brand’s customer base by attracting people to their page and increasing engagement rates. This cannot be achieved with fake followers, since they are bots and not real people, who can like, leave comments and share posts. Therefore, it is not beneficial for businesses to cooperate with influencers who have large amounts of fake followers since they will not gain anything from it, but instead lose the invested money. In addition, there are bots that can leave likes and comments that are not related to the post. As a result, the company gathers inaccurate information and data about its audience, which affects its overall operations and performance.
Fake news and followers might seem easy to detect at first, but a research carried out by Stanford University showed that majority of people cannot tell the difference between false and legitimate news on the Internet. Moreover, more than 30% of participants argued that the fake source seemed more trustworthy than the real one (Hunt, 2016). Due to such negative results some news outlets and universities decided to take matters into their own hands by launching online apps and digital tools that check truthfulness and validity of particular facts and ideas presented in articles. However, these apps are not 100% accurate and reliable, and still need to be improved. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, have introduced different tools to protect their users from fraud and fake news. Facebook circulates tips, which can help users to identify misleading information. It also added an option that allows users to report posts that in their opinion might be fake, which are then evaluated by third-party checkers to verify their credibility. If news turns out to be false, it will be labelled as fake and placed at the bottom of users’ feeds. While Facebook mostly uses artificial intelligence, Google makes use of human editors to evaluate the content of search results in an attempt to train algorithms to detect low quality content, which is then placed lower on search pages or band at all (Pangrazio, 2017). In terms of identifying fake followers, brands must carefully analyse accounts of influencers before cooperating with them. Businesses must pay close attention to the engagement rates of accounts and the correlation between the number of followers and the number of likes and comments, as well as their relevance. Even the general public can analyse social media accounts by using special online websites. But even though online platforms are working hard on reducing and removing fake content from the Internet, relying on them only may not be enough. The false information keeps increasing in volume, which means it will take more time to process it all, if such is possible. This is why people should learn how to analyse information and check their sources for credibility. Developing critical thinking is a life saving skill in this aspect and it should be taught from an early age. Not to add fuel to the fire, people should also think twice if the information is reliable before sharing it with others.
Considering all of the above, it is clear that fake news and followers is a real problem and it has real impact on everyone – audiences and businesses, especially the ones working in marketing. They affect brands’ PPC marketing, SEM, damage their reputation and cause inaccuracy in data. Although online sources have already come up with ways to avoid being a victim of disinformation and fake followers, it is also users’ duty to educated themselves on how to separate facts from fiction and think about the shared content and its consequences.
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