Every day is April Fool’s Day online — don’t blame the Russians for fake news, blame advertisers

Yes, this kitten is cute. But it’s lying to you. (Click for Fool Proof)h

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day. That means you’ll be tempted to believe and pass along some crazy story published by a site you’ve never heard of, which makes an unsubstantiated claim about something controversial that you wish were true.

Who am I kidding?  Every day is April Fool’s Day on the Internet. And we are the fools.

There’s been so much talk about the role of Russian interference in the election last fall, but as I’ve written before, fake news is much older than Donald Trump’s political career.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say it was invented — not by Russians — but by gold old-fashioned American advertising companies. Yes, Internet advertisers paved the way for today’s fake news deluge. (Acai berries, anyone?) . Back in 2010, I helped coin the term “fakosphere” to describe the surge of fake blogs hawking products. Well, the fakosphere is basically another name for the Internet now.

So suggests an organization calling itself the FoolProof Foundation, which says that fake advertising is now “a nearly overpowering presence in our lives.”  Just in time for April Fool’s Day, Fool Proof has launched a website devoted to helping consumers separate fake from real.

For years, you’ve stumbled on fake reviews and manufactured product “testimonials” — even full-fledged made-up “news” stories – enthusiastically proclaiming the virtues of weight loss products or wrinkle erasers. The problem is so widespread that it’s an existential crisis for services like Yelp, or even Amazon, which rely heavily on honest user input to help consumers make purchase decisions.  After all, if you can’t trust Internet commenters, who can you trust?

(FYI, fake reviews are illegal. For starters, they run afoul of the FTC’s Endorsement Rule, which states simply that no one can endorse a product and have a financial interest in that product without disclosing it.)

“Fake News is fast replacing recognizable advertising as the weapon of choice for the clear majority of advertisers and websites,” says Will deHoo, cofounder of FoolProof, in an announcement.

When was the last time you read a news story on the Internet and you couldn’t tell when the news ended and the ad began? Or when you saw a set of normal headlines at the bottom of a story with one conspicuously positive story mixed in — something like, “How did she live to be 106 years old eating only chocolate?”

That’s fake news.  Fake consumer news.

FoolProof says that “fake consumer news” is a one-sided sales pitch masquerading as trustworthy stories. Fake News goes by many names: native advertising, advertorials, invisible advertising and fact distortion.

“Advertisers have spent the last five years perfecting how to hide advertising within editorial content,” says Dr. Mara Einstein, author of Blacks Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell and a member of FoolProof’s Walter Cronkite Committee.

Roughly 80% of consumers are fooled by such stories, FoolProof says.

“The newest research suggests that native advertising will soon represent almost 3/4 of display advertising. And most of that will be ‘custom native’ – the kind that looks most like the website on which it appears,” Einstein said.

Consumers who want to become “Fool Proofed” can visit the organization’s website.

But let me boil it down for you. As the Russian interference story reaches its “endless Congressional hearings” stage, one critical witness will never be called to testify — the American education system. The only reason Russia’s reality distortion field experiments worked last fall is Americans are suckers.  The stories you saw passed around like wildfire, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, were so obviously faked that they could cause any 13-year-old to fail a Social Studies test. But there we were, crazy Americans, blinded by party loyalty, or just hatred for a particular candidate, passing along unsourced and easily debunked information.  Every high school student knows: When you read something, you must at least verify it a few other places before you “cite” it.

If you won’t follow that basic requirement of knowledge in your political life, at least be self-interested about it, and obey it as a consumer.  Fool Proof is right. The Internet is awash in fake ads and fake consumer news that has been cleverly designed to “hack” you and your weaknesses.  Now, more than ever (thanks Congress for overturning those FCC privacy rules!), firms have incredible research and insights into what makes you tick, and can exploit that with advertising designed to fool you.  Don’t fall for it.  Remember, every day is April Fool’s Day online.  Treat all of it with the skepticism it deserves.

FoolProof, founded by Walter Cronkite and Will deHoo, says it is the only financial literacy resource in the United States endorsed by both the National Association of Consumer Advocates and the Consumer Federation of America.

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About Bob Sullivan 1332 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Bob, I believe you that it’s “fake news wrapped up in advertisements”, however, right in the middle of this really important story is a “fake news wrapped up in advertisement” for “Main Culprits of Dementia”. I know, this is how money is made, by clicks, but perhaps even your own website could be a bit more cautious about which advertisers are allowed?

    Just a thought.

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