The rise of fake news stories across the Internet is a troubling trend. As of 2017, two-thirds of Americans got their news from social media, and the disconcerting influence of fake news — intentionally false but realistic-looking articles promulgated by clickbait and tabloid websites, as well as extremist political groups — is likely to intensify as the Internet continues to replace traditional media as a news source.

This is worrisome for society, and for traditional media outlets, but businesses in general have particular reason for concern. Websites that propagate misinformation often try to add credibility to articles by placing mainstream ads next to them. The tactic is possible because many large brands advertise through third-party or automated platforms. As a result, marketers lose control over ad placement, and brand ads can appear next to fraudulent content that does not reflect, or that even conflicts with, a firm’s values. It is thus crucial for firms to understand how the proliferation of fake news might harm their marketing efforts.

Since the fake-news phenomenon is so new, there is not yet much data on it and its relationship to brand perception. A new study aims to start filling that gap. The study’s authors found that brands marketing themselves on the Internet can be tainted by association when their ads run next to fake news articles. The result is consumers who are less likely to patronize the brand, visit its stores, or spread positive word of mouth — sobering notions in an era when Internet advertising is a cornerstone of many marketing strategies.

The authors conducted an experiment involving two news sources: a respected journalism outlet widely regarded by millennials, gen Xers, and baby boomers as trustworthy, and a well-known clickbait site generally viewed as untrustworthy by all three age groups. Participants were shown a Web page with the logo of one of these two sources at the top, along with a fake or real news story (it should be noted that the fake stories had actually appeared on clickbait sites; the researchers used these articles to make the study as applicable to the real world as possible).

Finally, the website included a real ad for either a well-known or a comparatively obscure car company, which ran alongside the news story as it would on a real-world website. This was to account for the fact that more popular or famous brands might override the effects of fake news.

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