Are PR and Branded Content Fake News?

I attended a meeting of the NY Internet Society that featured a panel of media experts, journalists, and a Silicon Valley lawyer.  They discussed the problem that has come to be called “Fake News”.

The neat label is deceptive because it’s an incredibly complex subject.  Some say it’s about propaganda and spinning. Others say it is about lies and counterfeit news sites. Still others say it is about how we get news today, which is increasingly on social networks.  Algorithm-driven news feeds can be gamed to spread lies. This apparently happened in the 2016 presidential elections.

Buzzfeed’s Gilad Lotan suggested Googling “Hillary’s Health.”  To this day, conspiracy theories rise to the top of the results.

Andrew Bridges, lawyer of the platforms would have us believe there are many types of “fake news”.  Seven, to be exact:

  1. Research and reporting with a pretense of being objective (e.g., major newspapers)
  2. Research and reporting in service of a cause (National Review, Nation, New Republic)
  3. Pretend journalism – claim to be a news source but is a curator (Daily Kos)
  4. Lies – the ones that Politifact and others give Pinocchio noses or “pants on fire” awards
  5. Propaganda – the systematic pattern of lying for political gain
  6. Make-believe news, like Macedonian sites.  They make up news from whole cloth.
  7. Counterfeit sites – they make you think you are at ABC, for example

He asked whether global warming, evolution or the latest gossip are examples.

You can’t find solutions without defining the problem.  It’s in Andrew’s interest to make a complex issue even more convoluted – because that makes quick fixes, especially ones that place the onus on his clients, seem inadequate.

If you see the problem as truth vs. lies vs. exaggeration vs. spin vs. propaganda – well then, it does seem to be a tough one to fix, if not impossible.  Who is the arbiter of truth? And what about opinion, which some might call spin?  What about free speech?  Should we outlaw PR, which some say is a cause?

I think the problem is more basic.  How do we even identify “news”? In this age of atomized, fragmented media, when the source can be unclear amidst the social fire hose, how can we tell if we are seeing a legitimate news item vs. some kooky rumor vs. a lie?

The first instinct is to consider the source – again the source is not always clear, and the journalist could be a citizen.

The question kind of reminds me about the concerns and debate over branded content.

I have some ideas for how to define the problem and corresponding fixes.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to Are PR and Branded Content Fake News?

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