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Fake News: Can it Affect the Sports Business Industry?

14 Dec, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
It Can, It Does and Planners Need to Stay Aware

There’s a great Facebook meme making the rounds, showing Abraham Lincoln. Under Honest Abe’s face is written: “’Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.’ – Abe Lincoln”

And it would be funny if it didn’t hit so perilously close to home. Bogus news is coming under increased scrutiny, particularly on social media, where its impact was particularly felt throughout the recent presidential election.

But what is the effect of fake news on our industry? Do the ripples extend far enough to touch sports events?

In a word, yes. The sports business industry is no less affected by fake news than politics is, and its spread harms everything from travel to various destinations to participation in specific sports.

Some examples: A recent study showed that inaccurate information on the Zika virus is more likely to be spread than the truth. In other words, all those social media posts claiming that Zika is made up or is a plan to depopulate the civilized world – on Facebook, they’re being Liked and Shared far more often than the posts about taking precautions. And since local cases of Zika have been confirmed in both Miami, Florida and in the Cameron County area of Texas, it’s clear the U.S. is far from immune to the virus, or to the gullibility of those who love to transmit fraudulent information. And let’s face it: Texas and Florida are both popular places for sports events.

Need another example of how easy it is to transmit falsehoods? A few years back, a TV news report suggesting that artificial turf contained cancer-causing chemicals was the subject of huge interest, and resulted in massive social media impressions. However, it was noted, none of the questions asked by the TV reporter in the program had resulted from scientific research, and none of the assertions about cancer were linked to any medical findings. Unfortunately, although follow-up research done as recently as 2015 failed to show a link between synthetic fields and cancer, the damage was done to the reputation of the surface.

So how do you keep false news from affecting your sports event? A few experts have posted tips.

Because fake news needs to be viral to be effective, most hoaxes are those that appeal to a wide swath of the population. In other words, they may not relate to the XYZ Tournament, but they will relate to the state it’s played in or the sport itself – or even the type of surface it’s being played on. And the biggest petri dish for the culture and spread of this is social media, including Facebook and Twitter, where gullible users are just waiting to gobble up and regurgitate falsehoods.

The take-away: If you’re using social media to promote your event, ride your page (and related pages) constantly. Even if you’re the only one who can post directly to the page, read the comments of those who respond to official posts, and read Visitor Posts (even though they’re not highlighted, they can contain damaging information.)

Want to help people recognize false information? According to a story in CBS News, the first thing to look at (and to tell others to look at) is the original source of the information. If a report is purportedly based on other news stories, find the original source of the information. You might find some of the quotes are correct, but the rest may have been taken out of context or fabricated.

If the potentially false story you’re reading doesn’t link to an original source, well, that’s a bad sign. Use a search engine to look for the keywords in the story to see if that “news” is being reported by any other outlets.

Google and Facebook each said they will ban fake news sites from using their respective ad-selling software. Snopes also has a guide to fake news sites, some of which are political and some of which are simply purveyors of wild and wacky lies. And a recent poll noted that Americans would be perfectly okay with social media platforms censoring their news and filtering out the falsehoods; in fact, 71 percent said it was appropriate for Google, Facebook and Twitter to remove fake news, and 67 percent said it was appropriate for Web service providers to remove it.

But as CNET News Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo pointed out, the problem is that everything in social media is treated like news, with no distinctions. And if people are enraged enough about something to want to believe it – whether it’s a falsehood about Zika or news about a political candidate they dislike – they’re likely to swallow that information whole, and then spread it around.

While there are plenty of ways to fact-check, few people turn to sites like Snopes or HoaxSlayer or others in order to try to debunk what they see. In fact, in the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated far more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.

CBS notes, “The best tool at your disposal, of course, is common sense. No matter what your political bent, if a story serves only to reinforce your beliefs, it’s best to be extra-skeptical before sharing it.”

Good advice. The election may be over, but there’s still plenty of fake news to go around.

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