“Pope backs Trump” and “Hillary sold weapon to ISIS” were just two of the spurious headlines that surfaced during the recent US election and heralded the start of the era of fake news.
Of course, fake news isn’t actually a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been rife since Roman times and became wide-spread across the whole of Europe during the Reformation, aided by the invention of the printing press. We need only look at more recent history and the work of Joseph Goebbels to see it turned into a sinister art form by the German Nazi party.
Today though we have our own revolutionary platform to spread propaganda and fake news: what the printing press did for the Catholic church and Reformers, so the internet is doing for those who want to peddle fake news and their own agenda.
Never more so has the potential influence of fake news unleashed through the power of the internet been more recognised in the public eye than in the 2016 US election. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was quick to deny that fake news widely shared on his platform helped crown Donald Trump, despite the fact that data has shown that news stories such as those above were far more widely shared than the follow up stories debunking them.
Even so last week Facebook announced a crackdown on fake news, developing algorithms to identify and remove fake accounts spreading false news and publishing adverts in UK newspapers with tips for spotting fake news.
It is interesting to note that Facebook has chosen to use the traditional media to reach its audience and it begs the question why. The internet is seen as the enabler of fake news and social media sites the main propagators.
Surveys of media trustworthiness consistently show that print media, especially regional newspapers, are considered to be significantly more trustworthy than Twitter and Facebook. This paper's own participation in a national campaign to stamp out fake news supports this and readers of the Yorkshire Post know that they can rely on stories from fully trained, legally aware and accountable professionals who are subject to strict regulation.
The Internet and social media platforms make it far too easy for those wanting to peddle fake news to do so – these news stories in comparison are from individuals who have little regard for defamation law and are entirely unregulated and unaccountable – however the relatively low cost of setting up a website, and establishing distribution to a large audience as well as the ability to tap into an existing user's media consumption patterns means that fake news can be proliferated easily and targeted more directly than ever before.
But fake news is not just a potential destabiliser in the political sphere but also within the public markets where shareholder sentiment and reputation are key factors. Investors are no longer just looking for information on companies from the business pages or established broadcast media, or from hard copy Annual Reports.
More and more are looking online to glean extra nuggets of information that could give them the head start from the rest of the market. Sadly with the rise of online blogs and investor chat forums the internet is littered with rumours and suggestions that can genuinely impact the value of shares and create a false market.
I regularly field calls from smaller investors concerned about internet rumours, or who were alarmed at potentially damaging share trolling from bloggers with an agenda and a suspected short position on these stocks.
There are also plenty of examples of investors talking up their own investments in the hope of attracting other investors to buy in and push the share price up.
For investors they would do well to apply some of the tips provided by Facebook to online posts and blogs on stocks but these are only small measures.
Well respected newspapers like this offer readers suspicious of local fake news to fact check it for you – and similarly any Investor Relations or PR consultant worth their
salt will provide shareholders with clarity over internet rumours and false news.