Fake news stories — online items that are outrageous but just plausible enough to make people hit “share” on Facebook — have been a hot and controversial topic since last year’s presidential election. A promotional campaign for a movie opening today used made-up news stories about attention-getters like the President and Lady Gaga, not realizing what a terrible idea this was.
Until Buzzfeed exposed the multi-layered hoax earlier this week, people shared the stories on Facebook, assuming that they were as real as any other outrageous news story passed around on Facebook.
Why is that dangerous? Large media companies should realize that it’s irresponsible to add more hoaxes in a world when news consumers already struggle to figure out what’s true, and hoax stories on what appear to be local news sites help to erode confidence in the news in general.
“When you start to tear down media and question what’s real and what’s not real, our democracy is threatened,” an ad agency chief creative director told the New York Times. “I think this is a hot enough subject that most marketers would understand that taking advantage of a vulnerable public is dangerous.” One would hope so.
Once the clickbait spread, the movie promotion is subtle: Among the other fake stories is a “trending” item with the headline Psychological Thriller Screening Leaves Texas Man in Catatonic State. The “fake news” sites also ran ads for at least one fake brand tied to the film, and for the film itself.
Today, the New York Times published an actual apology from the studio. In an emailed statement, a 20th Century Fox spokesman said, “In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong.”
Those stories are still circulating on Facebook, but now the links resolve to the movie site, not to pages masquerading as the New York Morning News or the Houston Leader.