Fake news: why it could endanger your business and what you can do about it

Back in November, a seemingly innocent, nine-word tweet saw more than $15 billion wiped off one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world overnight.

The tweet, posted from an account that appeared to be owned by pharma giant, Eli Lilly and Co, simply read: “We are excited to announce that insulin is now free.” Within minutes of the tweet, it gained viral status. Within hours, stocks in the company dropped by four points, then ten, then 20. Overnight, the market cap plummeted and it took almost three weeks for things to get back on an even keel.

The rogue tweet, and the account that created it, were fake. The owner took advantage of the fact Elon Musk now lets people buy blue verification ticks, and used the same name and profile picture as the official Eli Lilly account to dupe millions of people.

Musk was dragged over the coals for allowing such a thing to happen, but it once again – and very publicly – highlighted the ongoing danger fake news poses to modern businesses. Thing are so bad that fighting disinformation has become an explosive business model in its own right.

The politicisation of fake news 

Donald Trump used his platform to drive the proliferation and politicisation of fake news throughout his presidential campaign and time in office. The pandemic, and particularly the debate around vaccinations added fuel to this fire. As did social media’s lacklustre attempts to address the problem.

This has created a general feeling of distrust that is now filtering into how people view almost everything a business does. Adverts are more closely scrutinised. The motives behind social campaigns are questioned. Online reviews are viewed with cynicism.

During lockdown, online rumours about stock and petrol shortages spread like wildfire. Even when the companies involved publicly and repeatedly refuted the claims.

The rumours caused panic buying and knocked the supply and demand balance out of whack to the point some industries are still recovering today. Similarly, the false information swirling around 5G has seen a number of towers being set on fire, causing huge and unnecessary financial losses for operators.

Risk factors

It only takes a small handful of one-star reviews on a company’s Trustpilot to drop their rating. This not only damages the firm’s reputation, but it can directly impact their bottom line. Lower-rated companies aren’t given the same exposure on Trustpilot as higher-rated ones, and suddenly an entire source of potential leads and revenue can be wiped out.

There’s also very little reason (other than morals, of course) why a disgruntled customer, or rival couldn’t post a fake and scathing account of a business across their social media.

And bad news travels fast. In fact, a recent study found that the way social platforms reward users for engagement and activity is the biggest influencer in the spread of fake news. Just 15% of the most habitual news sharers in the research were found to be responsible for spreading 30% to 40% of the fake news.

Then there are the legal implications to businesses. Insurers are less likely to want to back companies with poor reputations, or which have fallen victim to fake news in the past. This can see policies increase and margins shrink.

Celebrities are finding themselves increasingly featured in deep fake videos, often hosted on adult websites and similar, with little legal recourse. While media outlets that (even unwittingly) publish fake news and false information are opening themselves up to defamation and libel lawsuits.

Plus, as was seen with the Eli Lilly example, fake news can create confusion and uncertainty in the market. Fabricated stories around product launches, company acquisitions or “leaked” accounts can cause stock prices to fluctuate, making it difficult for businesses to make informed decisions about their future. Spooking the stock markets can also lead to a lack of investment and a slowdown in economic growth generally.

Get ahead

The most worrying detail about the rise of fake news is that it can impact any business, no matter how big or small, or what sector they’re in. Yet thankfully there are also tools all businesses can use to manage the risk.

A key step is monitoring your online reputation. Google Alerts, which inform you any time your business is mentioned across the web, are free and effective at staying on top, or getting ahead of false information. As is Social Mention. Social Mention will also show you sentiment scores to reveal if there is growing negativity around your brand.

For more advanced features you can pay for Mention.com. It tracks mentions of your brand – and rival brands – across a billion online sources and can also breakdown the insights into specific demographics. From here it helps plan social media strategies around these insights. A single account costs £35 ($41) a month rising to £128 ($149) for Pro access.

Having a robust customer service policy in place can help stem the tide of bad publicity, too. Help desk software is a good place to start.

Hubspot Service offers both a free trial and a free plan for smaller businesses. Larger businesses then pay from $45 a month (£36).

Alternatively, MobileMonkey brings all of your different customer channels into one place to make it easier to manage and reply to comments. The platform also lets you automate sales outreach and monitor mentions. Depending on which services you need to use, there are a number of free tools or you can pay from around $19 (£15) a month.

Prepare and plan

Finally, it’s worth having a crisis management plan in place before any false information ever gets spread. This will vary based on the size of your business and the amount of moving parts you have, but, as a rule, when crises happen, acknowledge them quickly, admit any mistakes or highlight why a piece of information is false, and move on.

Creating a flow of positive information – new products, testimonials and case studies, charitable events – can also help drown out the negative stories and push the false information off the first page of Google.

Investing in a crisis management, or reputation service can also help. RockDove Solutions sells a mobile crisis management platform that helps businesses document, track and resolve issues. Prices vary based on the size of the company.

Security giant Norton offers a Reputation Defender service. Instead of automated tools, Reputation Defender connects you with experts that help you work out and deploy a strategy.

Fake news, or at least the spread of false information isn’t new and it also isn’t the reserve of online. Rumours, conspiracy theories, fear mongering and shady business tactics have always existed, yet the web and the likes of AI and deep fakes are the reason why its impact is now so far-reaching.

By monitoring your online reputation, managing customer service and developing a crisis management plan, businesses can minimise the harm caused by fake news and maintain the trust and credibility of their customers.

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Vicky Woollaston

Victoria Woollaston is a freelance science and technology journalist with more than a decade’s experience writing for Wired UK, Alphr, Expert Reviews, TechRadar, Shortlist and the Sunday Times. She has written about customer experience, innovation and collaboration for TechFinitive since 2023.