Where Does Fake News Come From? The Number One Influencer of Misinformation and How It’s Driven

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Who would have thought the childhood game Telephone would be as relevant to our day-to-day experiences as adults? We all remember playing the game. One person would whisper an arbitrary statement into their neighbor’s ear, who would in turn whisper into their neighbor’s ear, and so on and so forth until the last person hears the message and has to tell the entire group what the message was. The punchline comes when the last person’s interpretation of the message is so much different than the original and everyone starts laughing at the various people who messed up the message and why. Harmless childhood fun for sure, but in the digital age, we can multiply this effect by a couple trillion and we have what amounts to our modern day internet.

The advent of social media has very much amplified this phenomenon. Today, anyone can throw up a website with little difficulty, but with even greater ease, anyone can create a social media page, quickly build a following, and project any message he or she chooses to project to that audience. The internet is without question a wonderful tool for communicating and disseminating information to the mass general public. It also does this in a manner faster than anything we have seen in human history. However, is all of this information for the better? Is all of it even accurate?

The answer is a universal ‘no.’ So much so, that in very recent history the term “fake news” has seemingly taken on a life of its own, and now users have even seen fake news on Google and Facebook. I am sure that all of you reading this are familiar with the term. That is unless you have been living on a deserted island in the South Pacific without access to any internet for the past five years. Even if that were the case, in the 23 seconds it took you to log on to the web and navigate to this blog post, you would have without question come across the term.

Whether you call it click bait, fake news, poor content, trolls, or another type of internet slang, webmasters, SEOs, digital marketers, Google, Facebook, other search engines and social media bloggers, and the general public alike are getting blitzed from all sides, and it is getting harder and harder to tell the legit and authoritative content from the fake content.

This begs the question, where does this fake news come from? How is it getting distributed? How does fake news end up on a site like Google? How can we stop it? Are there really people out there who are just inventing fake content and parading it out on the web just to be jerks? On the one hand, and a very cynical one at that, the answer is yes. There are probably a handful of sociopaths out there who think it’s funny to manipulate the people who follow them behind the comfort of a computer screen all in the name of having a good laugh. However, believe it or not, a majority of fake and/or misleading, or incomplete, or unverified, or biased, or questionable content that floats around the web is most likely the cause of our childhood Telephone game as highlighted above. Someone took one message, misinterpreted it, and without seeking the help of an expert, decided to disseminate it across his or her social network. If that network was large enough, then all of those people can take their own interpretations of the message and disseminate it as they please without seeking the confirmation of an expert. Think of this as the anti ‘pay it forward’. Even if all of the individuals in this hypothetical chain had no ill intention, the outcome is still very negative.

Let’s examine a specific example of this that happened recently. This involved Google, Facebook, a controversial news website, some pre-conceived ideas surrounding fake news, and also an application of very black hat SEO. With The Ocean Agency being an expert in this field, we felt it was appropriate to dissect this case, and dispel some misconceptions.

Let us begin with just a little background. With the ever increasing problem that is becoming fake news, it has been well documented that Google and Facebook will be taking a more proactive role to limit the availability of fake news across their sites. The specifics behind these statements are kept vague intentionally. After all these are private companies who reserve the right to run their websites as they choose just as you would have the right to run your website as you choose. Google and Facebook have very sophisticated and proprietary technology that powers their sites, and it is not in their best interests to reveal how they work or how exactly they leverage it against the web.

Admittedly, Google and Facebook do hold some culpability to hurting the message within our telephone chain right off the bat. By telling the general public they will be making efforts to curtail fake news, but not telling them what qualifies as fake news or what actions they will be taking against these sites, now the public is going to fill in the blanks on their own and pass on the message. In many cases, people just read this as two tech giants are going to censor anything they don’t agree with, when that is not the case. Either way, people are only aware that Google and Facebook are taking some kind of action against fake news.

(Editor’s Note: Please be aware, below is in no way a commentary on the validity of Natural News or Facebook influencer David Wolfe. The Ocean Agency’s only interest from an SEO perspective as to how David Wolfe portrayed Google’s actions against Natural News and the potential influence it had across Facebook.)

Now let’s go into the specific example regarding the website Natural News being manually removed from Google’s index, the rarest and most severe penalty Google can take against a website. Natural News has since been added back into the index.

Shortly after news had broken regarding Google’s manual action against Natural News, I happened to be scrolling through my news feed on Facebook and came across a post a friend of mine had shared. My friend shared a video from Facebook influencer David Wolfe and was asking the question, “Is this true?” I did not respond to my friend (although I suppose this post is my long winded response), but I did watch the video titled, “Google Just Blacklisted NaturalNews.com.” In a nutshell, the video carried a very negative slant to Google and made reference to their recent announcement of cracking down on fake news sites. The video claimed the site was removed as fake because Google disagreed with their message and not because what they were saying was in fact actually fake.

Knowing that this allegation was patently false, and having never heard of David Wolfe or Natural News for that matter, I decided to navigate to Wolfe’s Facebook page to confirm or dis-confirm his authority on Google or SEO matters. Unsurprisingly, I discovered he was in no way an expert on Google or SEO, and the vast majority of his Facebook posts were on a completely different subject, but were also closely aligned to the content of the site Natural News. It was because of this it made sense Mr. Wolfe would have been upset to see a site he aligned with was getting penalized by Google. So how does this video on someone’s Facebook page get turned into fake news? The answer lies in some social media metrics.

Below is a screenshot taken of the video in question.

This video at the time of the screenshot had received some 1.5 million views, had been liked or reacted to over 23,000 times, contained over 3,000 comments and was shared 48,496 times (my friend obviously being one of them as that was how I had seen the video to begin with). Like my friend, most if not all of these shares had no ill intention. They were merely sharing a piece of content they identified with or were curious about. We cannot be sure exactly how much true influence this video had in all of these views or what the intention was behind all of these shares.

But the bigger problem is, Mr. Wolfe is not an authority on Google or SEO and was now providing an irresponsible narrative regarding Google’s practices. The real reason behind Natural News receiving a manual penalty, thanks to our friends at Search Engine Land, was due to their use of a sneaky mobile redirect that Google has been warning the SEO community for years not to use. They also warned that if you did use these types of redirects, then you would run the risk of being removed from the index until you removed the redirect. Natural News was in clear violation of this black hat SEO practice and got caught, so they were penalized. It had nothing to do with fake news, or Google disagreeing with the content of Natural News. It had everything to do with Natural News trying to beat Google at their own game and get around their search engine algorithm. Needless to say, that is a battle YOU WILL LOSE … PERIOD.

Mr. Wolfe took the message that Google is cracking down on fake news sites. He coupled that knowledge with the fact that a site he identifies with, Natural News was removed from Google’s index. Despite not being an expert on Google or SEO, he produces a video and projects that content to his Facebook page and his 10,124,110 followers, all of whom go to him for information other than SEO. This video is then viewed and shared thousands upon millions of times, and in each case the user is receiving incorrect information from a source who is not an expert in this particular field.

At the same time, to go back to our friends at Search Engine Land, they are among the top independent authorities on Google and SEO. They published a piece behind the real reason Natural News was penalized. It was posted on their Facebook page. Any guesses as to how many people follow Search Engine Land on Facebook? It is actually a very respectable 177,129. This is more than what most other pages can boast. Unfortunately, when compared to Mr. Wolfe, he possesses over 56 times more followers than Search Engine Land. Even if he held no ill intent when he published his video, and truly believed he was doing the right thing, he became responsible for disseminating wholly incorrect information on a subject to which he is not a material expert, while other authorities who are experts in the field are left trying to pick up the pieces. The false subject matter from the layman is being distributed with 56 times more initial reach than the accurate content from an industry leader. Given this, it is easy to see how initial misconceptions and faulty assumptions can evolve into a wildfire of lies and untruths.

So what is the moral of the story? It seems rather trivial to just flat out say, “don’t believe everything you see on the internet.” After all, this is on the internet, and I’m telling you to believe me, right? But in reality, it just boils down to continuing to question what you see and hear and try to learn for yourself. It is somewhat ironic that we have gotten to this point where we need to be reminded to question what we read, hear, and see in the media regardless of the medium. It is completely okay to look for answers to questions on the World Wide Web. The seeking and discovery of those answers helps us add value to our overall education and helps eradicate ignorance. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that ignorant, misleading, half-truths, and outright lies are also being disseminated across the same World Wide Web whether ill intended or not. Remember to question, research, and verify things on your own. If you don’t, then you’ll just be another poor schmuck who gets taken in by fake news.

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