What the mainstream media didn't tell you about fake news

News reporting on fake news is fake news because the public now believes Macedonian teenagers organically promoted disinformation with a single hop onto Facebook

What the mainstream media didn't tell you about fake news

If fake news reports by the mainstream news media are true, all it takes to create fake news are some clever Romanian or Macedonian teenagers with malicious intent and a website—and shazam the fake news propagates throughout Facebook. The reality is SEO, backlinks, paid promotion and other content strategies play a key role.

It is odd that mainstream news media would miss the most critical issue because after all, organic and paid promotion of internet traffic is what has put most of them on financial life support.

How fake news starts

Promotion starts with a fake news site with a credible URL name, such as realtruenews.org, probably built with WordPress and themed to look like a real news site. The end goal is to get tens or hundreds of thousands of gullible people to share the stories onto Facebook. Gullible reporters help, too.

Paul Horner, fake news writer and self-proclaimed satirist (to skirt libel and slander lawsuits), convinced Washington Post journalist Caitlin Dewey that it was simply his writing prowess that resulted in the viral spread of his fake news stories on Facebook. It was an example of skilled self-promotion by Horner and bad reporting by Dewey because she did not dig into how his stories were promoted. No one reporting on Horner’s viral creativity asked the question either. The story was echoed on credible news outlets such as CBS News, Slate and the Intercept.

The creativity in writing a headline, sub-headline and the first few paragraphs of an article is important, but it’s only the beginning of creating fake news. Multiple versions of the story can be compared using A/B testing to optimize clicks and read times. But on these merits, the probability that the story is shared virally is microscopic. And repeating this feat on a brand-new fake news site with little traffic is even less probable.

Gaming Google with fake news is the first step to reaching Facebook

Black search engine optimization (SEO) increases Google’s ranking in search results. A real company with a real brand would not engage in black SEO because if caught, Google will reduce the website’s ranking or eliminate it all together from search results.

The barrier to entry is very low for fake news sites. Content creators and an Amazon account cost very little. A self-hosted WordPress site costs nothing because it is free, open-source software. And the revenue from Google’s Adsense ad network could cover the cost. Even if Google categorizes the site as a fake news site and cuts off Adsense revenues, other ad networks might not be as meticulous or as capable of categorizing the site.

Google dynamically ranks the credibility score of websites. It measures credibility in the number and quality of sites that link back to the fake news site. Google’s credibility score can be increased with black SEO, using link manipulation. Link manipulation can be as simple as placing a backlink on a website that has greater credibility than the fake news group or buying a backlink on a site that has more credibility. Doing either of those things passes the credibility back to the referred site. A top brand will not sell a backlink to a fake news site, but a backlink to a site that has more credibility is all that is needed to increase the ranking. And it only needs to affect the ranking in the search term domain to move a fake story link to the top of the first page of the search results within the keyword search domain.

If fake news producers fool a mainstream media outlet to link back to a story, the credibility score will receive a huge boost from careless editors.

Link farms and link wheels

There are more complex schemes, such as link farms and link wheels.

A link farm is a website or a group of websites designed to increase link popularity of a single site using backlinks. This is how backlinks work with a normal website. But in the case of fake news, the sole purpose is to provide links to a target website and increase the number backlinks in order to raise the credibility score. Inserting backlinks into a link farm can be automated.

Link wheels are a mutual link exchange in which different websites agree to pass the page rank and create a circle of reciprocal backlinks, obfuscating the reciprocal links to fool the search engines. Link wheels can also be automated.

There are many other methods that no credible website would use because of the risk of Google downgrading or eliminating the site from its search results. But a fake news perpetrator can simply buy a new domain name, get a new IP address, repurpose the content to obfuscate its reuse from Google, and be back in business with a new website in minutes.

Paid promotion on Facebook accelerates propagation of fake news

If there is only one principal of internet marketing, it is money brings eyeballs. Most websites are constrained in spending by a profit motive; however, if the goal is to accelerate a fake news story’s time-to-viral sharing on Facebook, deficit spending on promotion is the accelerant.

Content networks arrange for contextual placement of content images, headlines and links to other websites for money. Content networks are brokers that have an inventory of space on website pages that the website owner is willing to sell to increase revenues. The content network sells this space to other websites that want to increase their traffic and promote their content. It is automated and contextual—like ad networks. But the content is presented with a phrase such as “You might like.” An example is at the bottom of this page, with content suggestions inserted by revcontent.com. The linking can be read with a webpage editor such as Chrome tools.

Like display ads, the promoting sites can select the contextual attributes of the websites where their content—in this case, fake news—is placed. And the site displaying the content can choose the attributes of the content that is recommended on their site.

Buying AdWords and display ads are other options for the fake news site to promote its content.

End to end it is a digitally measurable and optimizable pipeline

The sharing of articles on Facebook can be measured and optimized with Google Analytics or other analytics software. It is a pipeline with a digital trail: from posting on the fake news site, to black SEO, to content networks, to Adwords and ad networks, and finally to Facebook. A fake news organization with the goal of creating disinformation about a specific subject can start with multiple versions of the same fake news story on a few or even hundreds of fake news sites with credibility established with black SEO. This part of the pipeline is inexpensive. By measuring the organically produced clicks and time spent on the page, the most potentially viral stories can be selected for paid promotion.

The shares and referring links of any story onto Facebook and other social media can be measured with tools such as buzzsumo.com, and the digital trail back to the original post can be measured and optimized. A fake news site with financial resources, motivated with the goal of disinformation instead of a profit, can finance a story’s predictable sharing onto Facebook—something a real news site cannot counter because it is unable to afford that kind of promotion without a profit.

By the time a fake news article spreads, Facebook and Google have identified the fake news site using the digital trail. National security agencies with resources and the data could also identify it, as could any organization with the financial resources and technical expertise to uncover the trail. Facebook’s Open Graph is open. Programs can be written that search the Open Graph to find the fake news stories, and other programs can be written to trace the trail back to the fake news site and estimate the cost to promote the fake news. Law enforcement could do the same if there is probable cause that a law has been broken.

Mainstream media has created disinformation as much as the fake news sites. By reporting fake news created by Macedonian and Rumanian teenagers and Paul Horner, the fake news was propagated onto Facebook organically.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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