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corporate PR responses to deepfakesNew research highlights the pernicious danger of what’s called “junk news.” Junk news – or content from disreputable sources – is shared on Facebook and Twitter four times as much as content from reputable, trusted news outlets, according to a new study from Oxford University.

The term “fake news” varies by definitions and viewpoints. Some call anything they disagree with fake news. Some prefer the moniker false news or misinformation.

What are Junk News Websites?

Providing a clear definition, the Oxford researchers say junk news websites meet at least three of these five criteria:

Professionalism (or lack of it) – The outlets do not follow standards and best practices of professional journalism. They lack clear information about real authors, editors, publishers, and owners. They lack transparency and accountability and do not publish corrections of debunked information.

Style – The news sources use emotionally driven language that includes emotive expressions, hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, misleading headlines, excessive capitalization, unsafe generalizations and logical fallacies, moving images, and lots of pictures and mobilizing memes.

Credibility – The outlets rely on false information and conspiracy theories, report without multiple sources and do not fact-check.

Bias – They are highly biased, ideologically skewed, or hyper-partisan; news reporting frequently includes strongly opinionated commentary.

Counterfeit – They mimic established news outlets by replicating fonts, branding, and other stylistic content strategies. Commentary and junk content are stylistically disguised as news, with references to news agencies and credible sources, and headlines are written in a news tone with date, time, and location stamps.

The junk news list features four US-based media outlets: breitbart.com, zerohedge.com, infowars.com, and gellerreport.com. “The most successful junk news stories in our data set tend to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment, with few expressing Euroscepticism or directly mentioning European leaders or parties,” researchers state.

The Problem of Confirmation Bias

Some commentators say confirmation bias, or the human tendency to believe statements that support previously held viewpoints, helps spread junk news. That phenomenon is often referred to as the “echo chamber.”

Social media algorithms also play a major factor in the spread of fake news. The algorithms show social media users content with high engagement – posts already liked, shared and commented on. When many people share false but emotional posts, the algorithms display the posts to more users, creating a vicious cycle.

“At its worse, this cycle can turn social media into a kind of confirmation bias machine, one perfectly tailored for the spread of misinformation,” states the Brookings Institution researcher Chris Meserole in the Lawfare blog.

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false reports spread both faster and farther on social media because they’re more novel than factual reports. While often blamed for spreading falsehoods, bots are not the culprit. A bot detection algorithm researchers used found that bots spread false news and real news at the same rate.

Brands as Victims of Junk News and Fake News

Brands as well as individuals have been victimized by fake news. For instance, hoaxers once posted tweets announcing that a Starbucks would give free Frappuccinos to undocumented migrants in the US in its “Dreamer Day” event, Financial Times reported. The tweets spread swiftly online. The tweets replicated the company’s logo font style and included the hashtag #borderfreecoffee and pictures of Starbucks drinks, causing many to fall for the hoax.

PR teams can take a leading role in monitoring junk news websites. A comprehensive media monitoring service that covers fake news sources can immediately inform PR when their company, products, top executives or other keywords are mentioned online. Real-time alerts can enable PR to act quickly to smother the spread of misinformation before it goes viral on social media.

Bottom Line: Brands have come to fear fake news, also known as false news or simply misinformation. Corporate communications professionals can add the term junk websites news to their lexicon. Those junk news outlets pose a serious risk to brands’ reputations and must be constantly monitored.