Fake News and Spin Saturation

With fake news everywhere, we have become quite wary of what we read. Perhaps most shocking was how many phony stories were coming from Russia, complete with complementary trolls lurking in the comment sections to reinforce their legitimacy. But overtly false information is not the only kind that contains hidden agendas. Long before the most recent scandals, our  trusted sources were already compromised with  spin and ulterior motives. Let’s look at all this barely disguised propaganda in order to better resist the manipulation.

Commercial Fake News – VNRs

Ever heard of a VNR or video news release?  It is a chameleon-like commercial that looks and feels like your regular news cast. To be clear, it appears within the show itself, not during the break, so that no one is  the wiser.  Created by public relations firms, ad companies, or even federal agencies, they are sent in raw form to news stations across the country. These stations  then sneak them in their broadcasts. They might add their call letters or have their own talent voice over the original sound track so it looks authentic. PR Watch from the Center for Media and Democracy has 36 examples of VNRs that pretended to be news. The left side shows the original video clips, the right how they were doctored to look like part of the local broadcasts.

The legality of VNRs is still being debated. Due to negativity publicity, they are going under several new names these days.  Still, the practice persists.

Fake News’ First Cousin – Content Marketing

Marketing is the tip off. Companies seed non-news platforms with articles that subtly promote their goods and services. Unless we are talking about late night informercials for vegetable choppers, the slice and dice days of blatantly hawking products are over. Sophistication is key. Marketers take an authoritative approach to a subject with the underlying goal of creating a need for what they are selling.  For instance, pharmaceutical companies offer a plethora of information on various diseases to both the public and the medical profession. But the real purpose  is not just to educate, but recommend one of their drugs as part of the cure.

That is not to say that the information contained  in such articles has no value. To the contrary, quality content marketers go to great lengths to make sure that their pieces are credible and relevant. They are  more effective that way. Information from such sources is far from useless, but it is biased.

Behind the Curtain – Astroturfing

When corporations want to influence public opinion, they often create phony grassroots organizations that look like they were initiated by concerned citizens. They then distribute information that is sympathetic to their own point of view.

Think before you take that next bite to eat. According to SourceWatch, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which denounces  anti-smoking campaigns and dietary nags as “nanny culture,” is  sponsored by the tobacco and restaurant industries. On the other hand,  the International Obesity Task Force, long associated with the World Health Organization,  has taken millions of dollars from  drug companies. They then advocated for lowering ideal weight guidelines in children.

Business Insider has a list of ten more examples of astroturfing.

How Many $ Do You See? – Product Placement

Remember those childhood puzzles where you searched for the hidden animals in the forest? Product placement is the practice of slipping objects into various media outlets. McDonald’s even figured out how to get their iced coffee a guest gig on a local newscast.  With such an obvious tactic, most of us will connect the product = sponsorship dots.  But are marketing agendas  written into entertainment scripts as well? Did our heroine just get  stood up because her date thought she was a tad too mature? Or is creating  insecurity in that demographic  great for selling the anti-aging cream that coincidentally appears during the commercial breaks?

Even the Guy Next Door – Stealth  Marketing

Think you are safe if you unplug everything? Think again! Social proof is a concept in psychology that holds that we follow those around us, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Those attractive people at the next table over, talking up the appetizers, might be actors paid by the restaurant.  Your most popular neighbor, always getting packages from the same company, may actually be shilling for them.  A few years ago, 60 Minutes revealed that Sony hired “fake tourists” to get members of the public to take pictures of them with its new cell phone.

Self-defense Against Spin and Fake News

Neither fake news or industry spin is going away any time soon.  The best defense is critical thinking and using multiple sources for  information. But we don’t want to dismissing everything out of hand either. We may actually love the product recommended by the brand ambassador, or find the tips in the content marketing post genuinely useful. As the old saying goes: “Take what you want and leave the rest.”

Further Reading

FactCheck.org lists websites that promote fake or satirical stories (even with the latter, who can tell anymore!)

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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