Fake News and Your Law Blog

Posted in Blogs | Content Marketing | Facebook | Law Firms | Search Engines

Law firms should check their blogs and websites to see if they exhibit any of a growing list of tell-tale signs for “fake news.”

Regardless of whether “fake news” had a hand in selecting the next president of the United States, it is certainly true that the environment in which news — “fake” or otherwise — is produced and consumed is rapidly changing.

For law firms, most of these changes call for heightened monitoring of marketing automation technologies and changes that Facebook and Google may implement in order to deal with “fake news.”

As far as immediate action steps, there is one: All firms should check their blogs and websites to see if they exhibit any of a growing list of tell-tale signs for suspicious content.

Good News and Bad News for Content Marketers

The recent election contained good news for law bloggers and online content marketers because it again demonstrated the strength of social media for speaking directly to a target market, without the need for packaging or distribution by an intermediary such as a news publisher. Both the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party candidate Donald Trump were adept at using online media to rally their supporters and distribute negative information about their opponents.

Also, traditional information gatekeepers — news publishers, both print and digital — displayed little ability to sway public opinion. Trump was elected despite failing to gain the endorsement of a single consequential newspaper. And where he did succeed in collecting editorial board support, it seemed not to matter: Nevada went for Clinton despite Trump’s having earned the endorsement of the largest news publisher in the state, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

However, there are couple of data points coming out of the election that bear watching: bots and online platform responses to the “fake news” phenomenon.

First, according to news reports, pro-Trump bots were very effective spreading fake news and other “computational propaganda” across social networks during the election. It is easy to imagine how bots could be deployed to spread marketing messages and legal news in a manner that drowns out much traditional blogging and law firm marketing.

Second, both Facebook and Google are considering taking steps to stop the dissemination of “fake news” across their networks. See Facebook exec: "We resisted having standards" on fake news. "That was wrong." (Vox) and Google studying ways to deal with offensive search suggestions & results (Search Engineland). These developments bear watching.

How to Avoid the “Fake News” Look

Separate and apart from what platforms and search engines do, there is a growing movement to teach “news literacy,” to give readers tools to assess the quality of the information they encounter online. In fact, one California lawmaker introduced legislation that would require state public schools to develop a curriculum to teach schoolchildren “the ability to judge the credibility and quality of information found on Internet Web sites, including social media.”

If these public education campaigns take root, they will provide a lens though which Internet users will assess the credibility of information they find on law firm websites. The following is a list if attributes that media literacy advocates say can indicate “fake news”:

1. Suspicious Domain Names. The .co country code domain was commercialized several years ago, offering .co as a competitor to .com for business use. Unfortunately, the .co top-level domain was used to spoof ABC News during the election. I won’t link to the site, but you can read about it on Wikipedia at the abcnews.com.co entry.

The terms “blogger” and “wordpress” in a domain name can signify that a website is a personal blog, not a news organization. Some media literacy educators have flagged these terms as a sign of fake news or, at a minimum, non-professional news content.

I personally don’t think that a domain name is a good indicator of the trusworthiness of information on a website, nor do I think that blogs are inherently less reliable than traditional news publishers. However, this message is being spread by news literacy educators. Law firms should be aware of it.

Bottom line for law firms: pick your domain carefully.

2. Missing About Us Page. The absence of an “About Us” page can be an indicator of fake news. Where an “About Us” page is present, it should be scrutinized for information regarding the publisher.

Bottom line for law firms: Have an “About Us” page and make sure it clearly lists the authors and publisher of the blog. You don’t want to look like a content mill. Better yet, write a Wikipedia entry about the firm as well.

3. Missing Byline and Contact Information. Fake news content frequently lacks a byline or author content information.

Bottom line for law firms: Clearly display the name of blog post authors, along with a link to more information about the author. Don’t use “admin” or “wpadmin” or similar inscrutable source designations.

4. Questionable Currency. Fake news stories are often undated.

Bottom line for law firms: Put a date on every post. Consider putting “Last updated” information on every piece of law firm content on the website. If you are worried that information on your website will look stale, the only antidote is more regular updating.

5. Lack of Sources and Hyperlinking. Information that is highly opinionated, unsupported by research, or otherwise clearly the product of navel-gazing is often fake news.

Bottom line for law firms: Cite to reliable sources. Spell out their full title, authorship, and publication dates. Better yet, link to the source. These steps will go a long way toward conveying trustworthiness and reliability to the reader.

6. Lack of Uniform Style. Poorly edited, ungrammatical text is a red flag for fake news.

Bottom line for law firms: Consider adopting a style guide. Add multiple layers of editing/proofing prior to publication.

7. Design Aesthetics. Fake news sites are often ugly, poorly designed messes.

Bottom line for law firms: Work with your designer to ensure that your website appears professional and trustworthy.

8. Headline and Social Media Misdirection. Clickbait headlines and deceptive headlines frequently signal fake news ahead.

Bottom line for law firms: Law firm writers should deliver on the headline’s promise to align, as much as possible, the social media mentions with the content of the blog posts they reference.

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