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“If you don’t kill it in 20 minutes, you’re stuffed” – BuzzFeed and BBC talk fake news

Alex Spencer
BuzzFeed's Jim Waterson

Fake news. It's an undeniably huge problem for the entire publishing industry at the moment, as traditional publishers fight with an entirely new breed of competition, advertisers try to steer clear of putting brands alongside untrustworthy content, and aggregators like Facebook and Google try to stem the tide of falsified stories being shared online.

On a panel at Ad Week Europe, representatives from the BBC, Buzzfeed and PR firm Weber Shandwick tried to establish the source of this phenomenon – and all reached the same conclusion.

“Trust in all brands and institutions – not just the media – is falling across the western world,” said James Montgomery, director of digital development at the BBC. “One of the causes of that is the way content is distributed across social media.”

“A reporter will tweet single lines, one will get picked up and get written up as a news story before the reporter themselves can give any context,” said Buzzfeed UK politics editor Jim Waterson. “Speed is vital. If you’re trying to stop a lie, you’ve got minutes rather than hours before people starting filing those stories off the back of a single tweet.”

He added: “If you don’t kill it within 20 minutes, you’re stuffed. Someone will have screengrabbed it, and people will be asking why the tweet was deleted.”

This disintermediation of traditional publishers, by moving content onto platforms like Facebook Instant Articles, was identified as a major factor in the rise of fake news. It comes with other complications too, such as problems with attribution – which are vitally important when trying to distinguish real news from fake. “People may come across your content but not be able to tell it’s from you,” said Montgomery, something that he said is a particular concern for the BBC, which is working to make trustworthiness “the cornerstone of its brand”.

However, the move to external platforms isn't necessarily bad. Waterson talked about the 2014 edict from BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti that the company “go all-in on distributing straight onto Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat”, which put the publisher ahead of most competitors and boost its online presence.

“That’s the model. If it’s better on a platform, stick it on a platform, don’t worry about trying to recreate a newspaper online,” said Waterson. “One of my tweets can be as important as a story on a website nobody is going to read.”

The BBC's James Montgomery

Not all fake news is created equal
It's worth remembering that fake news comes in all shapes and sizes.  Weber Shandwick editor-in-chief Vivian Schiller referred to it as a “spectrum”, ranging from satire and parody at one extreme, to completely fabricated content at the other. 

Along that spectrum, taken from First Draft News, are categories such as ‘false context’, where information which is technically accurate is reported in a misleading way – something that be especially dangerous for brands. “It may be the accurate sequence of words that a brand representative did say, but it gets distorted, amplified and shared all over the internet in no time at all,” said BBC's Montgomery.

“You can’t exactly call Breitbart ‘fake news’, per se,” said Schiller. “Almost every story they write begins with a baseline of factually correct information, but it’s slanted or skewed towards a conclusion that people wouldn’t normally reach based on the facts.”

There's also 'false connection', where a headline doesn't accurately reflect a story's content. And even this category can be broken down into different sub-varieties. There's relatively harmless and apolitical content, more commonly known as 'clickbait'. Then, according to Waterson, there are newspapers running “incredibly partisan headlines” – what he referred to as “bullshit news”.

According to BuzzFeed's own research, in the UK these kinds of content are much more common than what most people would think of as 'fake news'. 

“Here we don’t really have totally fabricated stories going viral,” Waterson said. “It’s the stuff in the middle ground that’s really threatening.”

BuzzFeed's Waterson and Weber Shandwick's Danny Whatmough

Back to reality?
So how is the industry reacting to this explosion of fake news, in its myriad of forms? According to Weber Shandwick EMEA head of social Danny Whatmough, one side effect is that all sides are exercising a little extra caution.

“Fake news is causing brands to think twice about reputational issues of being associated with false content,” said Whatmough. “The likes of Kellogg’s advertising being shown on Breitbart, which becomes an issue on both sides – Kellogg’s saying it’s going to withdraw advertising, then Breitbart writing a story telling readers to dump Kellogg’s. And almost overnight, that brand becomes politicised.”

Whatmough also argued that the conversations around fake news are getting platforms like Facebook and Google to pay attention, and make positive changes. BuzzFeed's Waterson was less optimistic, though. On the topic of Facebook’s most recent anti-fake news initiative, the pop-up messages which warn users that a story they are sharing might not be accurate, he said: “I think they are just going to anger people.”

“People are sharing this fake news because they want their prejudices reaffirmed,” Waterson said, suggesting that the reaction from people who are predisposed to share a given story in the first place might well be to ask “why are the liberal elite trying to keep this hidden?”.

And it cuts both ways. Waterson gave the example of a tweet on the night of the US election, from a man in the UK, claiming that he was in New York’s Time Square and there were hundreds of Trump suporters shouting violent anti-Muslim slogans. “When we debunked it, we got a lot of responses saying ‘yeah, but it’s the kind of thing they would do’,” he said.

“One strange thing we’re noticed since Trump came in, and since Brexit, is a massive uptick in fake news on the left,” said Waterson. “People often believe anything they read about Trump, because some of the real reports are so outlandish that it can be hard to tell the difference.”

According to Waterson, self-identified liberal people can be guilty of attacking fake news up until the point whereit starts supporting their own views. He emphasised that it was wrong to dismiss ‘fake news’ as only affecting “idiots” outside of our own bubble.

“We’re all equally gullible, whatever our political persuasion.”