Fake news can kill your business!

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” said Winston Churchill… or Mark Twain. Irrespective of who the author was, his wisdom was never truer than today.

I am sure you are by now familiar with ‘fake news’, a term that has swamped our news media since the US elections. I do not wish to discuss that topic but do want to alert you to the effect fake news may have on your website and your business. Suffice to say, there are even authoritative sounding domains that specifically publish fake news.

Fake news has gained enormous traction mainly through social media, which in many ways is structured on our behaviour and is popular because it panders to our traits. The intent is to make an outrageous claim believable to a degree where it is repeated and then echoed by as many people as possible. As the number of repeats rises, so does the perceived credibility of the lie. Before the digital age, we used to call that gossip; it grew, but due to the poor distribution medium available, often the backyard fence, it generally had a far more limited impact, but not today.

How can anything like that impact on your website and your business? The answer lies in three parts; our education and reliance on search tools, the fact that more than 60 percent of our adults get their news from social media rather than a recognised news channel, and the difficulty of search engines recognising and separating fake news from the truth. It is this difficulty of filtering that may well be effecting you. Your site might not contain any fake news but it could contain words recognised by search engines as trigger words, penalising you. But I must not get ahead of myself…

A Stanford study found that the majority of high school students cannot tell the difference between real news and fake news. In fact, 82 percent could not distinguish between a real news story on a website and a “sponsored content” post.

It seems that those surveyed in the study were judging validity of news on Twitter, based on the amount of detail in the tweet and whether a large photo was attached, rather than focusing on the source of the tweet. The report, released by Stanford based on some 8000+ students, shows a dismaying inability of students to reason about information they see on the internet. For example, students had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from. Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.

There is no reason to believe statistics here would be much different. Just remember that these students are your next customer. And here is a secret: ɢ is not much the same as lifehacĸ is not I hope you read the last sentence with great care!

Google Analytics is being spammed with a new ploy, again demonstrating inane carelessness in terms of what we see on our screens. The imitation G.

In fact, the letter ‘G’ is a Latin Letter Small Capital, Unicode 0262.  Compared side by side with a real capital G, they would look like ‘ɢ G’ and the difference is obvious.

So, they faked a letter in the web address… so what?  If you click that link, it takes you to ɢ, not! You have just clicked into the spammer’s website, where anything can happen! You could land on a fake copy of your banking site with very obvious consequences. If you use Google analytics you can filter this kind of spam out in your settings. Indeed, Google has taken some stringent steps to combat this type of URL faking. As an aside, I quite often receive emails from my own mail address at Cybercons offering all kinds of wonderful enticements; obviously Cybercons is seen as an entity of high repute. Thank you, spammers!

At the beginning of this saga, Facebook refused to accept that it had any responsibility for content but has since invested close to US$1 billion for four companies to develop fake news detection algorithms. Additionally, it has also decided to give users the ability to mark posts as unreliable. How effective that system will prove to be, remains to be seen.

Google has been testing their ‘truth detection’ system by attempting to automatically demote an existing Holocaust denier site, which is cleverly designed to appear at the top of search results for a string of obvious search terms, for the factual sites on the subject. So far, they have only succeeded in moving the result down the page but not off the page. And therein lies a strange paradox; is this now a form of censorship and suppression of free speech? Further, terrorism is not excluded from fake news.

But this is where your website design is now becoming critical. Let’s assume you have devised a new specials page that may contain text such as, ‘our mind blowing secret specials are out! Have your holidays blown out of this world with our explosive new deals, etc.’.

No, I have not written the greatest advert but if you look at the key words it quickly becomes obvious that if search engine filters are set to include such terms then it is not difficult to see why your site might disappear from search results. This challenge not only contains keywords but provides a structured flow of those terms, which makes differentiation difficult. Any text that may have or appear to have salacious connotations would certainly affect your ranking. If you have any doubts, just search ‘fake news terrorism’.

This whole issue is about to become more complex still as Google has announced the introduction of dual indices. That means that mobile-friendly sites will reside in one listing on search results while the non-responsive versions will be indexed separately.
Eventually, it is intended to remove the later completely as all sites should be responsive. Many domains use a mixture of both versions, each with possibly their own content. Add fake news triggers to that task and the algorithm writers will probably have nervous breakdowns. I confess, being the author of several such mixed sites that progressively grew during the period of ‘m dot’ domains all the way to the latest version of HTML and style sheets. All because the end game was not clear over a period of years.

This article should be cautionary enough for you to revise your website so that it only operates with one responsive design; a design that consciously avoids both lack of clarity of intent and choice of words. I also suggest you regularly monitor your site in the search results to ensure you are not changing ranking for inexplicable reasons. Monitor sites like TripAdvisor, Facebook and Twitter for any derogatory or denigrating mention of your domain or business. Remember, the tools discussed in previous articles will be of help here as well.

Yes, I know… things are never meant to be easy. I do despair that 47 percent of adults believe a falsehood to be true if they see it repeated three times on social media!

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