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Fake news vs content marketing: 4 ways to fight back

On a quiet Sunday in 2016, a man armed with an assault rifle entered a Washington D.C. pizzeria and fired a number of rounds. Thankfully this was not the beginning of a mass shooting and he was arrested soon after.

For many, this was the first they had heard of Pizzagate – and their first experience of the powerful, and dangerous, fake news trend.

For anyone who creates content, fake news presents a very specific challenge: How to build trust with customers in a world so filled with misinformation it led one man – armed with a gun – to travel nearly 580km in search of answers?


Let’s start at the beginning, what is fake news?

Simply put, it’s misinformation circulated among multiple media channels and most importantly, it’s believed by its audience. While many who share fake news are not trying to spread inaccuracies, its creators are – sometimes even as part of a well-thought-through business plan.

In the case of Pizzagate, a story posted on alternative news sites falsely claimed that a run-of-the-mill pizza joint in Washington D.C. was really a front for a paedophile network. As the bizarre claim circulated, it was amplified by social media until thousands believed it – ultimately leading an armed man on a misguided cross-state mission to rescue entirely fictitious child sex slaves.

Of course, fake news is not new and has merely had different names at different times in history. In a recent article published by The New York Review of Books, Harvard Historian Robert Darnton pointed out that you can spot fake news in places and times as far-distant as France during the revolution and Florence under the Medicis. The 16th century had the pasquinade, a way of spreading nasty rumours about political figures, while the 18th century had the canard, which the French revolutionaries used to great effect.

In more modern times, hoaxes have become forms of fake news, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. Like when residents of the USSR thought Lenin had become a mushroom after a popular TV program presented the theory to its several million viewers. Or when the activist duo Yes Men pretended to be Dow Chemical spokespeople, announcing a Bhopal disaster recovery fund on the BBC.

However, the fake news as we know it today is slightly different. For the most part, this is due to the reach social media provides creators – where 62 per cent of US adults get their news from social media, according to a survey from the Pew Research Centre.

At the same time, audiences are finding it harder to distinguish fact from fiction. Just look at this 2016 Stanford study of school children’s ability to judge online information’s credibility. Only 25 per cent could tell the difference between a fake and a real news source on Facebook, with 30 per cent believing the fake source was more credible.

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How can this impact content marketing?

In the early days of the internet, many believed that the increasing volume of content circulating would enhance the public’s ability to identify fake from fact. Yet the opposite has occurred.

One reason is the sheer volume of content being created, posted, shared, tweeted and liked. Take a look at Domo’s infographic; the numbers are staggering.

But it’s not just volume. Audiences are becoming disillusioned with traditional media, leaving space for alternative voices to fill the void. A Buzzfeed News analysis, for instance, found that fake news was developing more engagement than top stories from major publications on Facebook in the lead up to the US election.

Could it be that users are becoming desensitised to content due to the volume they engage with on a daily basis? Or might it be that social media is creating much higher levels of trust between sharers?

Whatever the reason, many are expecting a backlash against poorly-sourced content as large regulators such as Facebook and Google clamp down. If this happens, poorly sourced content will likely lead to a drop in ranking, leads and ultimately business growth.

So, the question remains, how do content creators counteract the effects of fake news?

Beating fake news by building trust

Building trust with readers ensures real content is not sidelined, or even substituted for the fake stuff. So, let’s get down to business: here are four ways to build trust through your content.

1. Take a trip down the rabbit hole

The first, and most obvious, is to make sure you are not hoodwinked by fake news sources. There is added incentive today to make sure all sources can be validated, or at the very least come from reputable organisations.

Sometimes this can be as easy as using Google to search authors and check their credentials. Other times, it can be more akin to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. You’ll need to research multiple sources, using fact checkers like Snopes to ensure references can be trusted and your work isn’t designated fake.

2. No more Donnie Brasco content

Many viewers are now wary of sponsored content. In both a B2B and B2C environment, where your goal is to sell something to your audience, viewers will be even more sceptical.

Quality has never been more important and clickbait has never been less appealing. Highly promotional articles are still OK, but only if they are labelled as such. Incognito sales articles that say they offer educational or vendor-neutral content, only to bombard readers with pitch after pitch, will do little to build trust with your audience.

Instead, be explicit and be honest to your customers about what’s in the content. This can be best accomplished in your headline. A title that matches content is becoming rarer, so it’s a good place to start.

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3. Let customers tell your story

Portfolios and customer stories have always been a great way to get your message across. However, since the rise of fake news, their value has risen dramatically.

Customer stories overlap with your own objectives but deliver your message in a way that is neither pushy nor sales-y. Additionally, real customers are much more likely to talk about the pain points that potential customers are looking to remedy.

Having a customer tell the audience about their own experiences with your brand and products builds trust. This is largely because it relies on real people and emotions – not sales pitches – to do the work.

4. Get on social media

If there’s anything to learn from fake news it’s that social media – especially Facebook – is a must for content creators. However, the social media giant now fact-checks content after an announcement in December 2016. What this means is that users will be able to report fake or misleading news, which will trigger third-party fact checkers to substantiate the sources and claims in the content.

For those using social media to spread content, this will help ensure that fake news is buried and your content is made more visible. Taking advantage of this demands filling the spaces left behind by fake news, building thought leadership and letting your message shine.

The rise and increasing reach of fake news is not something to shrug at, but it needn’t be the catastrophe many are calling it. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.

What it does demand is a new way of approaching content that ensures a foundation of trust between creator and audience. This means verifying sources to show you’re trustworthy while sharing only accurate content that matches the pledge set out in the headline. It also offers an opportunity to leverage the value presented by customer stories, and fill the void left behind by the removal of fake news from social media.

Don’t forget, content creation is now a trust-building exercise, and those that can maintain it with their customers are in a position to drive leads and build communities.

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Alex Thorne-Large About the author