Steven Andersen and Andrew Longstreth
Steven Andersen and Andrew Longstreth ()

In the summer of 2016, we noted an uptick in a particular type of query from law firm clients. The fact patterns were eerily similar: A news story had appeared online, quoting an actual lawyer from a real firm, but the lawyer had never given an interview to the so-called publication. Moreover, the article was riddled with errors, out of context or otherwise sketchy. The questions from internal communications directors were clear and urgent: What is this publication? Have you ever heard of them? How did this happen?

This began a new focus on—months before it became a post-election buzzword—the growing and varied world of fake news.

Despite their recent fame, fake news sites have been around for quite a while as money-making ventures. In 2012, the FTC announced a settlement with marketers who used fake news sites to boast claims made about weight-loss products and colon cleansers. Their roots go even deeper. Internet scams are as old as the Internet.

Although their dominant reputation is now that of a political attack tool, many fake news sites are still very much about making money. A 2016 Buzzfeed investigation reported on a “digital gold rush” in the Macedonian town of Veles where locals had launched at least 140 political websites over the past year. Politics had nothing to do with the scam, it was just about the clicks. As the investigation reported, a “fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising—a declining market for American publishers—goes a long way in Veles.”

So how do lawyers get caught up in this? It would be difficult, after all, for an Internet profiteer to craft a credible legal news story. The thing is, they don’t—they just cut and paste. In several instances brought to our attention the quotes, lawyers and law firm names have been lifted—often sloppily—from legitimate news sites, usually wire services that have a global reach. This accounts for how real people and real organizations are caught in the fray.

Real identities lend credence to spurious sites, help trick search engines, social media users and media monitoring services into driving traffic, which regardless of motive—pecuniary, political or personal—is what the fake news business is all about.

How to Respond

First, don’t panic. Unlike the viral fake stories that rose to prominence in the election cycle, most fake news sites that affect lawyers receive minimal views. Website metrics are widely available online, both through free and fee-based services. Any law firm of scale has IT resources that can find this information. If a site’s unique visits are relatively low, the page is unlikely to turn up in search results.

Less than 10 percent of web searches progress past the first page of results, and only half make it past the first three links. If the site in question does not turn up prominently in search, it’s often best to ignore it. Giving it more attention can actually increase its staying power online.

There are other dead giveaways of a site’s credibility, many of which mirror those of commercial phishing sites. Often the site generator or template used to create the site is listed on the footer of the page—never a hallmark of reputable news sources. Spelling and grammatical errors, as well as low resolution images are other easy indicators of hastily cobbled sites.

If a fake news site can’t be dismissed on these criteria, it’s worth digging deeper. In some cases, fake sites or social media meme campaigns are the work of parties with a personal or political axe to grind. In that case, it’s wise to consult with PR and legal counsel. If the story is gaining traction online, a more aggressive approach may be necessary. Depending on the site owner’s location, they may be within reach of communications intervention or even legal action.

How Incidents Emerge

In most instances, legal sector fake news stories don’t surface in web searches, they crop up in regular reports from the media monitoring services to which many law firms subscribe.

Law firms do their best to track their digital footprint, both to monitor perception and to gauge the effectiveness of their communications efforts. Historically this was a largely quantitative effort, but increasingly, qualitative elements (positive versus negative mention) are a part of the analysis, both internally and through external tools.

Media monitoring services dig deeper than superficial web searches. They turn up strategically significant mentions in niche trade journals and other off-the-beaten-path pages that search engines don’t prioritize, or that are behind paywalls. But in some cases, they also turn up fake news, which understandably causes alarm and confusion for subscribers.

We reached out to several prominent media monitoring companies to see how they deal with fake news. A marketing manager at one service told us that their company vets every news source before it’s used to pull news. This was echoed by most companies we spoke to. If a vetted news source re-publishes a fake news story, the manager said, its program automatically demotes it to the bottom of the priority list.

Another media monitoring company didn’t verify that it had taken specific measures to deal with fake news, but told us that every source is personally vetted. Verified and newsworthy sources are added while those that are clickbait or can’t be verified are excluded. Multiple companies noted that clients can report abnormalities, and that the company investigates to determine whether to remove it from its source base.

It’s clear that these companies take measures to ensure veracity of sources, but also that they rely on subjective judgements regarding the outlets and articles that pass through to clients. We have noted, however, examples of stories that have made it past these human and machine filters and into reports. Law firms that suspect or verify a fake news item in a media monitoring report should report it immediately to their service so that the site can be flagged and investigated.

Responses of Internet Companies

In the wake of the presidential election, heavy scrutiny fell on social media and other Internet companies for their role in propagating the many documented fake stories that spread throughout the election cycle. In response, many have implemented new policies.

Starting in March 2017, Facebook debuted a warning label for fake news, termed “disputed” news. The process uses Facebook software or user reports. Users flag articles the same way they can hide a post or flag offensive content.

Flagged articles, either by the system or users, are sent to Snopes and Politifact for fact checking. If both organizations deem it false, then Facebook applies the “Disputed” label, and items appear with a warning.

LinkedIn doesn’t face the same issues regarding fake news as other social media sources due to its system and the nature of the platform. LinkedIn has 25 human editors, unlike Facebook’s AI, that “create, cultivate, and curate” content.

Furthermore, as a business-oriented site, LinkedIn is inherently less vulnerable. According to LinkedIn’s executive editor, many users actively self-police and call out political material, especially baseless pieces. Users view LinkedIn as an office version of social media, and are wary of political posts that could be seen by co-workers, superiors, or future employers. While LinkedIn does not have a flagging option for fake news, users may still report posts, flag spam, inappropriate, or offensive content.

Twitter allows users to report posts that violate Twitter’s rules, which includes unauthorized trademarks or copyrighted material, sale or promotion of copyright materials, inappropriate or pornographic material, brand impersonation, private information of an individual, violent material, spam, or a violation of the ad policy. Their list, however, does not include fake news.

Following the election, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google’s goal was to have no fake news distributed at all. Starting in February 2017, Google began financing a nonprofit that has enlisted 15 French news outlets to verify online content in the run-up to France’s April presidential election. Google has begun to implement a fact checking tool (like Facebook) in the United States, U.K., and Germany. Google has also blocked major fake news organizations from their advertising network.

Looking Ahead

The recent publicity surrounding fake news and resulting action of media companies has seemingly, for the time being, somewhat quelled it. We’ve seen fewer incidents in the months since it became a popular news theme and Twitter pejorative. But if the Internet’s past tells us anything, the tactic will come back, and smarter.

If the recent increase in frequency and sophistication of spearphishing attacks are any indication, fake newsers’ next efforts will be less obvious, more targeted and harder to debunk. Stay on your toes.

In the summer of 2016, we noted an uptick in a particular type of query from law firm clients. The fact patterns were eerily similar: A news story had appeared online, quoting an actual lawyer from a real firm, but the lawyer had never given an interview to the so-called publication. Moreover, the article was riddled with errors, out of context or otherwise sketchy. The questions from internal communications directors were clear and urgent: What is this publication? Have you ever heard of them? How did this happen?

This began a new focus on—months before it became a post-election buzzword—the growing and varied world of fake news.

Despite their recent fame, fake news sites have been around for quite a while as money-making ventures. In 2012, the FTC announced a settlement with marketers who used fake news sites to boast claims made about weight-loss products and colon cleansers. Their roots go even deeper. Internet scams are as old as the Internet.

Although their dominant reputation is now that of a political attack tool, many fake news sites are still very much about making money. A 2016 Buzzfeed investigation reported on a “digital gold rush” in the Macedonian town of Veles where locals had launched at least 140 political websites over the past year. Politics had nothing to do with the scam, it was just about the clicks. As the investigation reported, a “fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising—a declining market for American publishers—goes a long way in Veles.”

So how do lawyers get caught up in this? It would be difficult, after all, for an Internet profiteer to craft a credible legal news story. The thing is, they don’t—they just cut and paste. In several instances brought to our attention the quotes, lawyers and law firm names have been lifted—often sloppily—from legitimate news sites, usually wire services that have a global reach. This accounts for how real people and real organizations are caught in the fray.

Real identities lend credence to spurious sites, help trick search engines, social media users and media monitoring services into driving traffic, which regardless of motive—pecuniary, political or personal—is what the fake news business is all about.

How to Respond

First, don’t panic. Unlike the viral fake stories that rose to prominence in the election cycle, most fake news sites that affect lawyers receive minimal views. Website metrics are widely available online, both through free and fee-based services. Any law firm of scale has IT resources that can find this information. If a site’s unique visits are relatively low, the page is unlikely to turn up in search results.

Less than 10 percent of web searches progress past the first page of results, and only half make it past the first three links. If the site in question does not turn up prominently in search, it’s often best to ignore it. Giving it more attention can actually increase its staying power online.

There are other dead giveaways of a site’s credibility, many of which mirror those of commercial phishing sites. Often the site generator or template used to create the site is listed on the footer of the page—never a hallmark of reputable news sources. Spelling and grammatical errors, as well as low resolution images are other easy indicators of hastily cobbled sites.

If a fake news site can’t be dismissed on these criteria, it’s worth digging deeper. In some cases, fake sites or social media meme campaigns are the work of parties with a personal or political axe to grind. In that case, it’s wise to consult with PR and legal counsel. If the story is gaining traction online, a more aggressive approach may be necessary. Depending on the site owner’s location, they may be within reach of communications intervention or even legal action.

How Incidents Emerge

In most instances, legal sector fake news stories don’t surface in web searches, they crop up in regular reports from the media monitoring services to which many law firms subscribe.

Law firms do their best to track their digital footprint, both to monitor perception and to gauge the effectiveness of their communications efforts. Historically this was a largely quantitative effort, but increasingly, qualitative elements (positive versus negative mention) are a part of the analysis, both internally and through external tools.

Media monitoring services dig deeper than superficial web searches. They turn up strategically significant mentions in niche trade journals and other off-the-beaten-path pages that search engines don’t prioritize, or that are behind paywalls. But in some cases, they also turn up fake news, which understandably causes alarm and confusion for subscribers.

We reached out to several prominent media monitoring companies to see how they deal with fake news. A marketing manager at one service told us that their company vets every news source before it’s used to pull news. This was echoed by most companies we spoke to. If a vetted news source re-publishes a fake news story, the manager said, its program automatically demotes it to the bottom of the priority list.

Another media monitoring company didn’t verify that it had taken specific measures to deal with fake news, but told us that every source is personally vetted. Verified and newsworthy sources are added while those that are clickbait or can’t be verified are excluded. Multiple companies noted that clients can report abnormalities, and that the company investigates to determine whether to remove it from its source base.

It’s clear that these companies take measures to ensure veracity of sources, but also that they rely on subjective judgements regarding the outlets and articles that pass through to clients. We have noted, however, examples of stories that have made it past these human and machine filters and into reports. Law firms that suspect or verify a fake news item in a media monitoring report should report it immediately to their service so that the site can be flagged and investigated.

Responses of Internet Companies

In the wake of the presidential election, heavy scrutiny fell on social media and other Internet companies for their role in propagating the many documented fake stories that spread throughout the election cycle. In response, many have implemented new policies.

Starting in March 2017, Facebook debuted a warning label for fake news, termed “disputed” news. The process uses Facebook software or user reports. Users flag articles the same way they can hide a post or flag offensive content.

Flagged articles, either by the system or users, are sent to Snopes and Politifact for fact checking. If both organizations deem it false, then Facebook applies the “Disputed” label, and items appear with a warning.

LinkedIn doesn’t face the same issues regarding fake news as other social media sources due to its system and the nature of the platform. LinkedIn has 25 human editors, unlike Facebook’s AI, that “create, cultivate, and curate” content.

Furthermore, as a business-oriented site, LinkedIn is inherently less vulnerable. According to LinkedIn ‘s executive editor, many users actively self-police and call out political material, especially baseless pieces. Users view LinkedIn as an office version of social media, and are wary of political posts that could be seen by co-workers, superiors, or future employers. While LinkedIn does not have a flagging option for fake news, users may still report posts, flag spam, inappropriate, or offensive content.

Twitter allows users to report posts that violate Twitter’s rules, which includes unauthorized trademarks or copyrighted material, sale or promotion of copyright materials, inappropriate or pornographic material, brand impersonation, private information of an individual, violent material, spam, or a violation of the ad policy. Their list, however, does not include fake news.

Following the election, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google ‘s goal was to have no fake news distributed at all. Starting in February 2017, Google began financing a nonprofit that has enlisted 15 French news outlets to verify online content in the run-up to France’s April presidential election. Google has begun to implement a fact checking tool (like Facebook) in the United States, U.K., and Germany. Google has also blocked major fake news organizations from their advertising network.

Looking Ahead

The recent publicity surrounding fake news and resulting action of media companies has seemingly, for the time being, somewhat quelled it. We’ve seen fewer incidents in the months since it became a popular news theme and Twitter pejorative. But if the Internet’s past tells us anything, the tactic will come back, and smarter.

If the recent increase in frequency and sophistication of spearphishing attacks are any indication, fake newsers’ next efforts will be less obvious, more targeted and harder to debunk. Stay on your toes.