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Without realizing it, some of the world’s top celebrities and most famous brands are fueling the rise of fake news across the Internet. For companies hawking products like weight loss pills and wrinkle creams, fake news articles featuring celebrities have become a profitable way to get in front of customers and get them to buy products. The practice is decidedly sleazy and deceptive — but it is also incredibly effective (or, at least, more effective than sending you a spam email that immediately gets blocked by your spam filter).
How the fake news scam works
In the classic using fake news-to-sell-product scam, a company first sets up an entertainment-themed or media-inspired website that looks remarkably similar to a mainstream site. (It may even adapt a popular logo to give it even more verisimilitude) It then populates the site with stories of celebrities who are launching new companies, endorsing products, and selling new services. It then sells advertising on the site, ensuring that the site looks slightly more credible than one of those loathsome infomercial-style sites that are still so popular.
For example of how this works in practice, one article was called “The Shocking Reason Joy Behar is Quitting the View” and it appeared on a website called Entertainment Today. That article was actually a sham story explaining that Joy Behar was working on an extremely popular anti-aging skin care line and was quitting her show to pursue that opportunity full-time. Then, at the end of the article, was an invitation for a “free trial” for Behar’s products. Even worse, the fake news article included fake endorsements from real celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg.
But it was all fake! Joy Behar wasn’t quitting “The View,” her celebrity friends didn’t endorse it, and she wasn’t starting a skincare line. And the “free trial” wasn’t free – it included a shipping and handling fee, and then once you gave the company your credit card details, it started billing you $90 a month for skincare products delivered to your door.
How advertisers are unwitting supporters of fake news
A scam like that should be pretty easy to stamp out, right? The FTC has certainly tried. And it encourages consumers to be skeptical about “free trials” and other offers that appear to be too good to be true. And it even provides examples of what to watch out for online.
But there’s a second leg to the classic fake news scam that makes it particularly difficult to stamp out – and that’s the complicit support of major advertisers. That’s because the whole system of placing digital ads on the Internet is so automated and controlled by algorithms that advertisers really don’t know which sites their ads are showing up on. Ads are designed these days to follow people around on the Internet, wherever they may be headed – and if they’re headed to a fake news site, well, what’s to stop the ad from following?
And so when an Internet visitor to a fake news website sees ads from respectable, big-name advertisers, that only deepens the illusion of reality of the site. If, for example, you landed on a website with prominent ads by a big automaker, you’d assume that the website was fairly legit, right? If you saw an ad for Coca-Cola next to a fake news story about, say, Barack Obama’s new line of amazing brain health vitamins, you might be tempted to read a bit further, right?
The blurring of the line between content and marketing
Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale about the current state of online content and online advertising. The line between the two has blurred to such an extent that it’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart. Go to any of your favorite websites – all of them now have sections for “sponsored content” that looks just like regular content. But all of this “content” is really just advertising.
That’s right – the whole concept of “content marketing” has made it socially acceptable to create advertising that looks just like content. And the constant search for clicks has forced even mainstream websites to up the ante, making their content as entertaining as possible. Check out how often even “trusted” websites like the New York Times or CNN use words like “shocking” in a title to get you to click.
Who’s to blame?
Since much of the online world is now being controlled by algorithms, it’s hard to figure out where to start or who’s responsible. Google has an algorithm that’s based in large part on how popular a site is, so what’s better than a fake news website packed full with articles that people are clicking on daily? Facebook has an algorithm that’s based on how many clicks and likes articles are getting, so what’s better than a “shocking” story capable of going viral and getting a bunch of “likes”? And the big ad exchanges and ad networks have algorithms designed to place highly targeted ads in front of individual users wherever they go on the Internet, so it’s no surprise that these ads are now popping up on fake news sites. (If you build it, they will come!)
While we probably don’t want the government (i.e. the FTC) trying to sort this out for us, it’s pretty much a given that, as long as Facebook is getting paid and as long as Google is getting paid — and as long as sleaze ball companies are selling their products — nobody really has an incentive to change the system, do they?