The fake news market is booming.
Silicon Valley giants are hiring thousands of monitors. Outside groups on both sides of the Atlantic are pitching verification services. Now, some Beltway consulting firms are pitching fake news antidotes.
Not all practitioners are ready to start spending. For one, fake news isn’t easily definable. Is it a mailer endorsement attributed to a former president who wasn’t then president when the quote was given? Is it a doctored photo, or quote pushed out on a fringe news site?
Definitions aside, even the skeptics of a service designed to combat fake news acknowledge how widespread the problem is in the current media environment, where practitioners, entrepreneurs and advocates are all jockeying to help voters navigate through disinformation.
“It’s a tactic, and now that it’s in the playbook, people know it so it’s going to affect Republicans and Democrats equally,” said Eric Wilson, a GOP digital consultant.
To wit, the West Virginia Senate primary that wrapped May 9 saw a widely-cited example of fake news. Congressman Evan Jenkins' camp released a spot that used a photo of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey shaking hands with Hillary Clinton – a photo doctored from an original that featured Morrisey with President Trump.
Wilson contends that Republicans and Democrats have different responses to fake news. “The left has a very strong ally in the mainstream legacy media to help them fight back against this, whereas Republicans have to go to the voters more directly.”
In this case, Morrisey tweeted the original photo of him with Trump while calling out Jenkins' camp for the tactic. Morrisey ultimately prevailed in the Senate primary to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.).
“The right strategy when you see something start to move is get the real story out there first,” said Wilson. “That requires campaigns to be more proactive.”
Meanwhile, this week DSPolitical launched a service it’s calling "Antidote: The Fake News Buster,” which allows campaigns and groups to get their creative in front of “specific individuals who’ve been exposed to fake news online.”
Jennifer Holdsworth of DSPolitical said the firm is pitching the service as an add-on to its existing offerings. “It’s something very quickly that we can offer our clients to come in and correct [the record] and give voters proper information.”
Holdsworth didn’t offer up the firm’s specific process, but she noted that DSPolitical, which specializes in cookie-targeted advertising, is able to identify a campaign’s persuadable target who has visited a site known to publish fake news.
“It’s a really important tool for political and advocacy campaigns to monitor the sites that the folks on their lists, in their data, have been to,” said Holdsworth.
If the site in question, say Breitbart or The Other 98%, has published a fake story about the campaign or cause, Antidote “allows us to serve an ad to someone who has encountered fake news,” she said.
Holdsworth said the service isn’t a panacea, but can complement other ongoing efforts.
“What Facebook and Google are doing should be applauded. We’re trying to aid in that process and come in in another way,” she said.
One potential problem with a service targeted specifically at fake news is that the solution to the problem is more holistic than turn-key, according to Wilson.
“Part of the solution is good media moderating and understanding of your grassroots. You don’t want to give credibility to something that’s fake by responding to it — because once an idea, false, true, or otherwise, has been introduced to voters it’s hard to convince them otherwise.”
Rodell Mollineau, a partner at Rokk Solutions, said if a campaign or group has the budget, a service like DSPolitical’s can’t hurt.
“I don’t think there’s any one service that can catch everything and make all right in the world,” he said. “But the right people applying the right technology can clamp down on some of the fake news, and some of the social media manipulation.”