Few cultural developments of 2016 have incited as much anger, fear, or insight into our current culture as the rise and acknowledgment of fake news. Fake news is exactly what it sounds like—these are sources and articles that make inaccurate or intentionally misleading claims under the guise of professional journalism.

Fake news by itself wouldn’t be too much of a problem (tabloids have existed for decades), but the recent spread has been noteworthy because of the sheer number of sharers and views these stories have attracted. A team of Stanford researchers recently released a study that revealed a widespread inability to verify information among middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and college students.

But what does the fake news epidemic teach us about the state of content marketing, and what can we, as content marketers, do about it?

The Fake News Epidemic

Fake news has been around for a long time, but its role in this year’s Presidential election put it in the spotlight. Statistics from a Buzzfeed survey suggest that in the three months leading up to the election, many social media users encountered more fake news stories and headlines than real ones. These headlines range from simple twists on remotely believable ideas, such as Pope Francis endorsing Trump for President, to truly egregious fictional creations, such as the “Pizzagate” conspiracy that alleges a connection between Hillary Clinton, a local New York pizza joint, and a pedophilic sex ring.

These stories have had effects ranging from “angry” emoji use on Facebook to physical violence in the real world. It’s scary stuff, but what does this tell us about the world we live in? What kind of culture creates an epidemic like this, and how are people consuming this content?

The Sheer Potential of Social Sharing

First, fake news should clearly demonstrate just how powerful social sharing can be. In a matter of hours, a single powerful story can work its way into millions of newsfeeds around the world; at that point, even if a retraction or edits are made, millions of new impressions will have formed, the vast majority of which will never know about the retraction or edits. As such, they’ll spread the original misinformation to others, who in turn may continue spreading it.

An adeptly timed, well-written shock piece can go viral without a shred of real evidence supporting its existence, and obviously, people aren’t good at checking their sources.

The Power of a Headline

Headlines have always been one of the most powerful elements of an article, and fake news proves just how valuable a strong headline is. In a previous article, I covered a finding that “59% of all links shared on social networks aren’t actually clicked on at all, implying the majority of article shares aren’t based on actual reading. People are sharing articles without ever getting past the headlines.”

If readers would have ventured to click through and read a few paragraphs of an article in question, they’d likely notice a few holes in the story—but instead, it’s easier to make a flash judgment about the headline, react, and share with friends and followers. This isn’t a good thing, by any stretch of the imagination, but since you know about it, you might as well take advantage of it by spending more time crafting powerful, share-worthy headlines.

The Illusion of Authority

It’s also worth noting that many fake news sites actually look like legitimate news sites. Unless you have a previous working knowledge of which sources can be trusted and which ones can’t, it’s hard to tell the difference.

This “illusion of authority” is responsible for persuading even intelligent audiences to believe some crazy ideas, so it’s important to realize just how important the appearance of authority truly is. ...

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