Every day is April Fools’ Day on the internet

With barrage of fake news, consumers must read everything online with a healthy dose of skepticism

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Today is April Fool’s Day. That means you’ll be tempted to believe and pass along some crazy story published by a site you’ve never heard of, which makes an unsubstantiated claim about something controversial that you wish were true.

Bob Sullivan, journalist and one of the founding members of msnbc.com

Who am I kidding?  Every day is April Fools’ Day on the internet. And we are the fools.

There’s been so much talk about the role of Russian interference in the election last fall, but as we’ve discussed, fake news is much older than Donald Trump’s political career.

Related story: Attackers hit pay dirt when sending emails that use Trump’s name

In fact, I think it’s fair to say it was invented—not by Russians—but by good old-fashioned American advertising companies. Yes, internet advertisers paved the way for today’s fake news deluge. (Acai berries, anyone?). Back in 2010, I helped coin the term “fakosphere” to describe the surge of fake blogs hawking products. Well, the fakosphere is basically another name for the internet now.

Help has arrived

So suggests an organization calling itself the FoolProof Foundation, which says that fake advertising is now “a nearly overpowering presence in our lives.” Just in time for April Fools’ Day, FoolProof has launched a website devoted to helping consumers separate fake from real.

For years, you’ve stumbled on fake reviews and manufactured product “testimonials”—even full-fledged made-up “news” stories—enthusiastically proclaiming the virtues of weight loss products or wrinkle erasers.

The problem is so widespread that it’s an existential crisis for services like Yelp, or even Amazon, which rely heavily on honest user input to help consumers make purchase decisions. After all, if you can’t trust internet commenters, who can you trust?

Favored sales pitch

“Fake News is fast replacing recognizable advertising as the weapon of choice for the clear majority of advertisers and websites,” says Will deHoo, co-founder of FoolProof, in an announcement.

When was the last time you read a news story on the internet and you couldn’t tell when the news ended and the ad began? Or when you saw normal headlines at the bottom of a story with one conspicuously positive story mixed in—something like, “How did she live to be 106 years old eating only chocolate?”

That’s fake news. FoolProof says that fake consumer news is a one-sided sales pitch masquerading as trustworthy stories. Fake news goes by many names: native advertising, advertorials, invisible advertising and fact distortion.

“Advertisers have spent the last five years perfecting how to hide advertising within editorial content,” says Mara Einstein, author of Blacks Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell and a member of FoolProof’s Walter Cronkite Committee.

Roughly 80 percent of consumers are fooled by such stories, FoolProof says.

“The newest research suggests that native advertising will soon represent almost three-fourths of display advertising. And most of that will be ‘custom native’—the kind that looks most like the website on which it appears,” Einstein said.

Proceed with caution

As the Russian interference story reaches its “endless congressional hearings” stage, one critical witness will never be called to testify—the American education system. The only reason Russia’s reality distortion field experiments worked last fall is because Americans are suckers.

The stories you saw passed around like wildfire, like the pope endorsing Donald Trump, were so obviously fake that they could cause any 13-year-old to fail a Social Studies test. But there we were, crazy Americans, blinded by party loyalty, or just dislike of a particular candidate, passing along unsourced and easily debunked information.

Every high school student knows: When you read something, you must at least verify it a few other places before you “cite” it.

If you won’t follow that basic requirement of knowledge in your political life, at least obey it as a consumer.

Now, more than ever (thanks Congress for overturning those FCC privacy rules!), firms have incredible research and insights into what makes you tick, and can exploit that with advertising designed to fool you. Don’t fall for it. Remember, every day is April Fools’ Day online. Treat all of it with the skepticism it deserves.