Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the typical outlets one thinks of when contemplating the phenomena of fake news. Facebook even tried to clean up its feed for a while, until it threw in the towel.
But a recent story from Business Insider showed how content placed by third-party advertisers is damaging long-respected brands by running fake, sensational stories with click-bait headlines next to closely related editorial content.
Just this week, ESPN fell victim to this ruse, when a sponsored story called “LeBron Devastated After News of His Secret Hit the Tabloids” appeared on the New York Post’s site next to a legitimate story about the NFL.
The fake story about basketball superstar LeBron James dove into his use of an illegal herbal performance enhancer and said he would be suspended by the NBA. It even falsely quoted NBA commissioner Adam Silver as saying the supplement was “100% all natural and organic” and beneficial to an athlete’s performance.
Laid out like an ESPN.com story and positioned next to a real sports story, the fake report actually linked back to a site called “espn.athleticbazaar.com,” which is not affiliated with ESPN. Rather, the link sent users to a website for Athletic Bazaar, a Denver-based company that sells performance-enhancing herbs, among other types of workout and athletic gear.
The dubious quote from Silver was essentially used as a promotion for the supplements sold on their site.
While the fake story posed little repercussion for James or the NBA, it did reveal how difficult it is for brands to protect themselves when an outlet like the NYP leaves advertising up to third-party vendors, as the story notes.
ESPN’s reputation for accurate, trusted news is immediately jeopardized when a story like this appears next to any sort of sports-related content. The same, of course, would be true for any other brand. A brand has no control over how or where such stories appear, and advertisers are looking for profits, as opposed to honesty and authenticity with their targeted audience.
An ESPN spokesperson is quoted in the BI story, stating: “We are aware of these sorts of fake ads and have worked through the hosts of these sites, as well as with Twitter and Facebook, to have them taken down.”
She noted ESPN strives to stay ahead of “imposters” and to address “issues of online impersonation.” The challenge for brands in the current market is clear as they scramble to protect their reputations in a constantly changing digital environment.