Some are calling this the post-fact era, and we’ve seen just how difficult it can be to tell fact from fiction recently. Events in the UK during the EU referendum campaign, and across the pond in the US presidential elections, have shown that while social media allows us to access more information than ever before, not all of that information is worthwhile – in fact, fake news may be on the rise.
Fake news on social media
In the not-so-distant past, our access to information was limited by the amounts of providers available, as well as the kinds of media we used. In the UK, terrestrial TV was limited to three channels for a long time, then a fourth and fifth were added in the 80s and 90s. Newspapers were prolific, but there was a different attitude to the news back then.
Competition meant that papers competed to get the facts – exclusives and ‘scoops’ were designed to draw in the readers, but they were based on accuracy and telling the truth. At least, before the tabloids emerged. Until that point, the news was considered more accurate, but also more controlled – the public could only get their news from a relatively small number of sources, and so were dependent on the broadcasters and publishers showing us both sides of the story, which wasn’t always the case.
The growth of tabloids meant the public had access to more, cheaper papers and a culture grew where editors became accustomed to adjusting the truth to fit the headline, in the hopes of increasing readership. Concurrent with this was the explosion of satellite TV and 24-hour news services. Now broadcasters had more competition and had to keep the viewers glued to the TV for longer periods.
The growth of social media
In the 2000s, the arrival of the internet was trumpeted as a new wave of information, where users would have access to unbridled amounts of news from a variety of sources. We could find out things we never knew before and would make up our own minds as to the truth. Reality could no longer be controlled by a small number of news moguls, and news would be back in the hands of the people.
Blogging became popular, first as a means of expression and next as a means of commentary. That lead to the growth of social media, with first Facebook and then Twitter emerging as the new pillars of media.
While both platforms deny that they are in fact media outlets but instead a means of social engagement, it quickly became apparent that the majority of users were actually getting most of their news from shares on these sites. As of the third quarter of 2016, Facebook has 1.79 billion monthly active users, most of whom share news articles and headlines with their networks.
Clickbait and the art of gaining hits
The currency of the internet is ‘hits’ – the number of individual users visiting and viewing an article or blog. Bloggers and social media moguls were concurrently coming up with ways to game the system to increase views – Facebook and Twitter experimented with algorithms, with Facebook, in particular, perfecting a ‘news feed’ that curated content for users based on their previous shares, likes and engagement.
Meanwhile, bloggers were learning the art of keywords and search engine optimisation (SEO) that would increase their visibility on Google rankings. This lead to the rise of so-called click bait articles – articles that might not be newsworthy in themselves, but which were written in a way that would garner interest and click-throughs.
Sites like The Onion and Buzzfeed took differing approaches. The Onion is a satirical website offering an intelligent but parodic look at the news, while Buzzfeed offered easily digestible chunks of content with headlines that exploited readers’ curiosity but which provided nothing substantial within.
Clickbait and politics
Recently, the number of clickbait sites and fake news on social media has grown to such a worrying extent that commentators have suggested they now play a role in politics. On both ideological sides of the debates in the UK and US, users were sharing fake stories about politicians, presidential candidates and others.
We’ve reached a point where we no longer know what’s real and what’s fake, and many have realised that it’s time to do something about it.
Amid public pressure, Facebook has announced that it’s using its Facebook Ads platform to crack down on such sites, removing their access to paid advertising. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, but it’s a direction that pleases some and worries others.
While it’s obvious that the amount of fake news on social media is concerning, some are also worried that we could see a step towards a kind of censorship that, if mishandled, could lead to social media preferring one kind of opinion over another.
Perhaps the best approach is for content producers to take it upon themselves to do better?
Why copywriting is important
In an age of competing platforms and media, all vying for our attention, nothing beats well-written, informative and entertaining content. That’s why it’s so important for content providers to ensure that their content is top class.
If providers are unable to produce that content themselves, they should turn to the growing army of skilled copywriters out there who can produce it for them.
Experienced copywriters will research articles and blog posts fully, altering their tone to suit the target audience and create lasting content that will bring visitors back without the need for tacky or false clickbait headlines and fluff content.
Do you want your site to be known for contributing to the ‘post-fact’ society with fake news and click bait, or do you want to provide solid content that delivers something of value to your visitors? That’s a question we’re all going to have to ask ourselves going forward.