What if businesses went in for ‘fake news’?

ByMartine Maelschalck

What if businesses went in for ‘fake news’?

Since Donald Trump’s electoral campaign in the USA and the victory of the Brexit camp in the United Kingdom, the concept of ‘fake news’ has burst into common usage. So fast, in fact, that French linguists are struggling to find a translation: ‘fausse nouvelle’? ‘Désinformation’? ‘Information fallacieuse’? Even the more cynical ‘post-vérité’? None of these solutions seems to take account of the global understanding of the English term: using the media with the intention of deceiving public opinion.

And judging by the low level of indignation aroused by what turned out to be the lies of Nigel Farage (leader of UKIP, the UK Independence Party), before Brexit or Donald Trump (who has made it his trademark), the use of ‘fake news’ in an electoral campaign would no longer shock many members of the general public.

Admittedly, this technique is nothing new. Back in 1828, US presidential candidate Andrew Jackson started a rumour that the outgoing president, John Quincy Adams, had pushed an American maid into the arms of the Tsar of Russia.

And of course, the Nazis were unfortunately past masters at the art of propaganda and manipulating crowds on the basis of totally fabricated theories.

But the development of social networks has increased the phenomenon: according to the Pew Research Center, 23% of Americans have already shared incorrect information on line (and 14% did so knowingly). The most striking example is that of an article shared almost a million times, asserting that Pope Francis supported Donald Trump. ‘Fake news’. Add to that the heightened mistrust of the establishment and elites (including the traditional media), the conspiracy theories and the ‘filter bubble’ – that fact that on the networks we only see opinions that we tend to agree with – and you have the ingredients of the phenomenon that is turning the world of information upside down.

Clicks mean money

Even if some people, following in the footsteps of Donald Trump, like White House spokesman Sean Spicer, have no hesitation in ‘justifying’ their lies by stating that ‘you can sometimes be at odds with the facts’, it is important not to forget that there is also a lot of money to be made by spreading fake news. One of the objectives of fake news editors is to promote clicks – i.e. make money.

Until now, the wave of fake news seems mainly limited to the world of politics. But what would happen if it were to extend to other facets of life in society, such as the economic sphere and the business world?

As in the case of politics, the phenomenon could, for instance, take the form of fake news spread to harm the competition by misusing the social media. This is not science fiction: in November 2016, the French group Vinci was the victim of ‘fake news’. A false press release announced the dismissal of the financial director and accounting errors amounting to EUR 3.5 billion. Despite certain improbabilities in the text, several agencies took up the story before the company had time to react. Immediate effect: Vinci dropped 19 % on the Paris stock market.

Other companies such as Fitbit, Avon and G4S have also suffered fake news attacks. Here again, there is nothing new under the sun… except the firepower that the social networks, today’s word of mouth, confer upon the broadcasting of false information.

A question of credibility

But the phenomenon can have other consequences for the reputation of companies. In fact, the advertising tracker algorithms based on browser preferences send adverts from companies of good repute to websites specialising the broadcasting of fake news. The most well known of these is Breitbart News, where the demonic Steve Bannon officiated before becoming an adviser to Donald Trump.

An online community calling itself Sleeping Giants has taken it upon itself to warn companies whose adverts find themselves in such bad company. Over 1,400 companies throughout the world have already decided to withdraw their adverts from Breitbart.com. Which is one way to hit the broadcasters of fake news through their cash tills.

Apart from a few episodes that belong more to the realm of pranks, such as when Carambar announced that it was going to stop publishing jokes on its wrappings, or the traditional April Fool hoaxes, such as Burger King announcing the opening of its first restaurant in Durbuy, until now companies have stayed prudently away from the silly game of deliberately publishing fake news.

In our view, this is a sensible attitude. Because it’s a matter of the ethics and credibility of the entire economic ecosystem which is basically built on trust: the trust of producers, suppliers, workers, distributors, media, consumers, etc. Spoiling that for a few clicks would, in our view, be a risk not worth running. But the chances are that some companies will try it, for worse rather than for better.

Martine Maelschalck
Senior Advisor

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