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There’s a Fake News Pandemic. Could COVID-19 and Trademarks be the Cure?
by: Summa PLLC Practice Group, Rebeca (Becky) Harasimowicz of Summa PLLC  -  
Tuesday, July 7, 2020

As political divides widen, accusations of differing viewpoints being “fake news” have become almost commonplace.  But during the COVID-19 pandemic, fake news has taken a more dangerous and sometimes deadly turn.

Fake news stories with fabricated COVID-19 data, sensational origin stories (it was NOT predicted by Nostradamus or created in a lab in China as a biological weapon), and baseless advice on how to protect against the illness are spreading almost as fast as the virus itself. 

Fake news around COVID-19 has been directly linked to higher rates of infection, a rise in hate crimes and discrimination, increased anxiety, and further economic devastation, all of which exacerbate the current pandemic.  Even more troubling, information learned from fake news is more persistent and longer-lasting in a reader’s mind than genuine news sources because of its often sensational nature.

Fake news is a pandemic, and thus far, there is no cure.

Fake News: A brief history

Fake news is defined as "fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent." Although real news outlets may sometimes print opinion pieces that are more conjecture than fact, or even occasionally erroneously report particular facts amounting to poor reporting, their intent is to report noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events. Fake news, on the other hand, disguises itself as real news in an attempt to “cloak itself in legitimacy and to be easily shareable on social media” without any genuine intent to inform the public or attempt to be truthful.  Rather, it is intended to get clicks (e.g., readers) so as to increase advertisement sales.

Fake news isn’t new.  Its roots can be traced back to at least as early as the sixth century A.D.40 when Procopius, a Byzantine historian, disseminated false information, “known as Anecdota [to] smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian.” Social media and online advertisement sales, however, have turned it into a seemingly unstoppable beast.

With social media, it is easier than ever to rapidly spread information without verification of the contents or source. Approximately seven-in-ten Americans (of all ages) currently use social media to connect with others and engage with news content, and approximately 43% of adults get their news from Facebook.  

With the mere click of a button, a completely fabricated story can be instantly shared with hundreds of people, who in turn can share the story with hundreds more, and so on and so on.  The more click-baitey (i.e., catchy) the title, the quicker the story spreads and the more advertising money the author generates.  

Unfortunately, in today’s climate, sensationalism is often more rewarding than the truth.

Legal Avenues are Ineffective to Combat Fake News

Fake news generally takes one of three forms:

  • Type 1-Spoofing: A content provider spoofs a legitimate news source to confuse consumers as to the source of the information (e.g., a fake FORBES Webpage circulating fake articles);

  • Type 2-Poaching: A content provider creates a publication that is intentionally confusingly similar to a recognized news source (e.g., registration of washingtonpost.com.co with a home page that mimics the WASHINTON POST) so as to poach consumers intending to visit a legitimate news source; or

  • Type 3-Original Sensationalism: A content provider creates an original publication under which to provide content, but relies on the sensational nature of the publication to disseminate the content via social media platforms. 

Spoofing and poaching, as described above, typically violate several trademark laws.  The creation of a Webpage that spoofs a legitimate news outlet or appears confusingly similar to the news outlet’s brand is likely direct infringement of the news outlet’s trademarks.  Similar arguments could be made under the Lanham Act’s unfair competition and dilution frameworks (if a mark is famous enough to be spoofed, it is likely famous enough to be diluted).  Fair use defenses would also likely be unsuccessful (fair use for parody and satire does not apply where the intent is not to parody or satirize, but rather merely to confuse the relevant public and profit off of the goodwill of the mark).

Website owners, however, can sometimes be difficult to identify (they are often in foreign countries) and new sites can be created faster than infringing sites can be identified and shut down.  News outlets can thus wind up incurring large legal fees to shut down infringing sites in a proverbial game of whack-a-mole with little to no chance of recouping their costs from the bad actors themselves who live to infringe another day.  

Several spoofing and poaching Websites owned by Disinformedia, a Web-based fake news content provider, have been shut down (see washingtonpost.com.co, nationalreport.net, and usatoday.com.co) as infringing the trademarks of major news outlets, but fake news is still on the rise.  This is because original sensationalism (type 3 above) is the most common form of fake news and it is nearly impossible to halt through legal action.  

Fake news content providers have long relied upon free speech protections.  As long as fake news sources do not pretend to be other news outlets or to confuse readers as to the source of their content (i.e., spoofing and poaching), there is little that the legal system can do to stop the spread of information they may publish, no matter how false.  In very exceptional cases of falsehood, defamation suits may succeed, but these are rarely raised and even harder to prove.  

Although legal avenues may not be effective at halting the spread of fake news, trademarks may still ultimately hold the key to stopping the fake news pandemic.

How Fake News is Hurting Facebook’s Brand

Social media platform owners have long held that social networks should not be the arbiters of speech. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has repeatedly argued that Facebook and similar social media platforms were designed to give everyone a voice and bring them together and that to curtail such speech, no matter how false or offensive, would be to stifle free speech

This has been a hard line for Mr. Zuckerberg and other social media giants like him.  Even after evidence came to light that foreign powers weaponized fake news to affect the 2016 election, Facebook’s official position on this point did not shift.

However, after months of Facebook failing to remove fake news stories surrounding COVID-19 from its platform, nonprofit groups began to label Facebook an “epicenter of coronavirus misinformation” and advertisers began to boycott the social media platform until it reformed its stance on known fake news stories.

Facebook soon released an official statement that it would finally be taking steps to “connect people to accurate information from health experts and keep harmful misinformation about COVID-19 from spreading”.  During the month of April alone, Facebook placed fake news warning labels on about 50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19 and redirected over “2 billion people to resources from the WHO and other health authorities” via an integrated COVID-19 information box and pop-up warnings notifying users that they had engaged with a fake news article relating to COVID-19.

Facebook’s response to COVID-19 misinformation has proven that it can prevent the spread of fake news without sacrificing its commitment to free speech.  If free speech is no longer an impediment to stopping misinformation, then it is time for Facebook to address the prevalence of fake news on its platform.

Seven-in-ten Americans use Facebook, yet over 60 percent of all Americans now believe the news that they see on social media is fake.  Fake news is ultimately hurting its brand.

As Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie explains, social media platforms such as Facebook have developed goodwill (i.e., trust) in their brands over time.  That goodwill is borrowed by every shared news story, whether real or fake.  When Facebook users see articles generated from an unknown source, they believe the article is factual because it is shared by real people on Facebook and subconsciously or consciously assume that Facebook approves the content.

If the majority of Facebook users now believe that the news they see on social media is fake, then they have lost trust in Facebook itself, thus diluting Facebook’s brand.  As fake news continues to dilute the Facebook brand and associated trademarks, Facebook is at risk of further losing goodwill, users, and, perhaps most importantly to Facebook, advertising dollars.

Few would argue that Facebook has an altruistic interest in the spread of fake news on its platform, but the Facebook brand will continue to be diluted if it does nothing to stop the spread of fake news.  Facebook has taken the first steps to identify and target fake news on its platform brand as it relates to COVID-19, but only time will tell if Facebook will expand these measures to apply to other types of fake news stories.

It took COVID-19 to force Facebook to take steps to protect its trademark (i.e., brand) and confront fake news.  Perhaps it takes a pandemic to face a pandemic.  

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