Politics, Facebook and pizza: How the rise of fake news and online rumors affects businesses

By Tina Irgang

Facebook and Google have been facing a growing outcry over the proliferation of what’s commonly known as “fake news” on their sites, with some commentators alleging that the widespread sharing of thinly sourced or completely fabricated posts may have influenced the outcome of the presidential election. But this week, it became clear that the power of online rumors reaches small businesses as well.

The New York Times reported on Nov. 21 that a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, is fighting an onslaught of death threats against its employees over a series of widely shared articles.

The articles allege that the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, is in reality a cover-up operation for a child-abuse ring run by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta. “The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen,” according to The Times.

The paper also reports that Comet Ping Pong’s owner, James Alefantis, and his employees are receiving threats daily, and that pictures of their children posted to the restaurant’s social media pages have been widely downloaded and shared across the web.

The restaurant seemed to have attracted this unwanted attention in the wake of a WikiLeaks release of hacked emails originating from Podesta’s account. A number of his emails mention pizza, or the possibility that Alefantis would participate in a Clinton fundraiser. (Fact-checking site Snopes has more on the origin of what is generally known as “Pizzagate.”)

While the pizza restaurant’s experience is an extreme one, it illustrates that businesses face tremendous risks from online rumors, especially if the rumor includes a political connection that might fan the flames of the current, raw political climate.

If an online rumor springs up that targets your business, your avenues of recourse are limited. While Comet Ping Pong’s Yelp comment section has been closed to comments for the time being, one-star reviews continue to appear on the restaurant’s Facebook page, with comments such as “We know all about the ‘pizza.’ Thank you Julian Assange for exposing them.” and “F*** this place, we are onto you.”

How to avoid fake news? Learn to recognize it

One of the ways to limit your business’s risk of ending up at the center of an online firestorm is to steer clear of participating in online rumors, especially if they touch on politics. Obviously, posting unverified rumors to your company’s page is always a bad idea, as it’s an easy way to alienate potential customers.

However, since you and your executive team are the most visible representatives of the company, it’s a good idea to be careful about what is shared to your personal pages. Here are a few pointers to help you avoid sharing fake news and other unverified digital content:

  • Read before you share. This sounds simple, but it’s a step many people skip. Often, social media users share stories based on the headline alone, notes The Huffington Post. Once you keep reading, you may realize that the information you’re reading isn’t attributed to any verifiable source, or that it actually contradicts the headline.
  • Look closely at the link. A lot of fake news sites end in strange suffixes, such as “.co” or “.su,” according to CNN. Also, if the website’s name doesn’t sound familiar to you, it may be a red flag. Google the name to find out more about the site before you share its content.
  • Determine how widely reported the story is. If all mentions of the story link back to the same page, it’s likely the story is fake, notes CNN.
  • Take shocking quotes or photos with a grain of salt. If a quote seems too shocking to be true (such as a debunked quote attributed to president-elect Donald Trump that refers to Republicans as “the dumbest group of voters in the country”), that’s because it probably is. Google quotes to see if they’ve been mentioned elsewhere. For images, make use of tools such as Tineye to find out where they originated. They may be old images that have been put in a misleading context.

With political passions running high, it’s a good time to remind employees that you value their right to free speech — but also that the act of sharing fake news can have real-life consequences for people and businesses, including yours.