What Role Can Broadcasters Play to Prevent the Dissemination of “Fake News”?
With the 2020 General Election less than a month away, it is peak season for so-called “fake news” campaigns whereby state-sponsored actors and others use legitimate looking news sites, emails, and social media posts to spread false information in an attempt to wreak havoc on the election, sow distrust in the American political system, and otherwise destabilize our democracy. If broadcasters and other legitimate news organizations are not careful, they could be used as tools to help legitimize these disinformation campaigns.
There are three components of a successful disinformation campaign: content creation, content distribution, and content legitimization.
In many ways, the first component—content creation—is the simplest: drafting fake news articles that attempt to influence a reader’s beliefs. These articles can either take a direct approach, purveying false information about political candidates or issues, or an indirect approach, promoting wedge issues that will contribute to the general divisiveness of the citizenry. You’ve probably seen reports of foreign espionage agencies using fake news factories to churn out this propaganda at a steady clip.
In the age of the Internet and social media, the second component—dissemination of this fake news—is easier than ever. Perpetrators of fake news can place their propaganda on one or more websites on the Internet and then use social media campaigns to push their messages to the masses. Because social media posts often include text or images with links to third party websites, all it takes is a catchy headline to generate substantial traffic to obscure websites that host fake news content.
The most difficult and most important part of a successful disinformation campaign, however, is the third component: content legitimization. Most people clicking a link to an amateur-looking site with the domain name FakeNewsFromRussia.com will recognize that the information is not from a credible news source and disregard the information. But if the destination is a professional looking website with a domain name like ABCNews.com.co, MSNBClive.com, or 24online.news, the reader might find the information credible and share it with others, providing it with a further layer of legitimacy.
This is where broadcasters come in. One of the easiest ways to create a sense of legitimacy in a fake news website is to copy the website of an actual news organization. First, the perpetrator can register a domain name that reflects a “typosquatted” version of an actual news site. If a station uses the domain name www.wcba56news.com, a fake news operator might register www.wcba56.com (omitting news), www.wcba56new.com (removing the “s” in news), or www.wcbo56news.com (changing the a in the station’s call sign to an o). At first glance, each of these domain names appears to be related to WCBA. Then, the propagandist can either copy the station’s own website or place the station’s logo on a professional looking website template used by the fake news operator. In some cases, the fake website will even copy actual news stories from the website it is copying to provide a further layer of legitimacy. When a user clicks on a link to an interesting headline on social media and arrives at a domain name like www.wcba56.com, which includes a professional looking website with the logo for WCBA56 News, they are less likely to question the authenticity of the information provided.
While there is a patriotic reason for stations to monitor the use of their intellectual property for fake news, there is also a business case. Although the use of a station’s branding can legitimize fake news for some users, it also can have the opposite effect—diluting the station’s credibility and the value of the station’s marks for others.
So what can broadcasters do to prevent their brands from being commandeered to support the spread of disinformation?
First, broadcasters should ensure that they have adequate brand monitoring procedures in place. This could include conducting routine searches for fake domain names that trade on the station’s call signs or marketing slogans, or regularly searching the Internet for fake websites that use the station’s name, marks, or other intellectual property. There are professional services that can automate each of these steps.
Second, if a broadcaster finds a fake news site that infringing on the station’s intellectual property, it should act to have the site disabled as quickly as possible. While the specific approach will depend on the nature of the website, the location of the domain name registrant and registrar, and the type of domain name (.com, .org, country-code top level domain, etc.), enforcement actions could include:
- A cease and desist letter to the domain name registrant and/or the website operator if their contact information is available;
- A takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the website host (which is most likely to be successful if the website host is based in or conducts substantial business in the U.S.);
- A letter to the domain name registrar (the company with whom the domain name is registered) or the registry operator (the operator of the top level domain name on which the website is located, e.g., Verisign for .com and .net, Public Interest Registry for .org, and GoDaddy for .us);
- A domain name dispute resolution complaint under the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Process (UDRP) or the Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS); or
- A lawsuit under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) or other IP laws.
Given the number of available enforcement options and the specific requirements for each, it might be helpful to consult with your legal counsel to navigate the process. Wiley has extensive experience obtaining the disabling of domain names and social media accounts used to disseminate fake news and for other fraudulent purposes.