Fake transfer news and how the power of repetition creates belief

In Depth

I’m reasonably sure I’ve seen more news articles about fake news than I’ve seen actual news over the past few weeks.

Both sides of the political spectrum have become obsessed with the idea. Who is putting this fake news about, where is it coming from, and how do you separate it from the real stuff?

The term has gained traction recently, but the concept of unreliable news is certainly not a new one. It’s what we used to just call ‘bullshit’.

What is different now is the size and brazenness of the lie we are being asked to swallow – but football fans have been putting up with it for years.

How it works

Here’s an example of how it can – and does, on a regular basis – work:

A writer for a fairly well-known Manchester United blog writes that Jose Mourinho should sign another striker to compete with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and that Real Madrid’s Álvaro Morata would be a good option.

The article hits NewsNow, and attracts the attention of someone compiling, say, the Daily Telegraph’s live transfer blog, who adds it as a throwaway line: ‘Man Utd fans, would you be happy to see Morata at Old Trafford?’

Harmless enough, but then the person compiling the Daily Mirror’s live blog sees it: ‘The Daily Telegraph suggests Morata could be a target for Man Utd this window – would he be a good signing?’

What starts as a suggestion on a blog can very quickly become what appears to be a genuine piece of transfer news from one of the major newspapers. And it doesn’t stop there.

In this (completely made-up) example involving Morata, the rumour is also of interest to football fans in Spain so, before long, Don Balón catches wind: ‘Reports in England suggest Manchester United could be preparing a January move for Real Madrid striker Álvaro Morata.’

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READ: How a transfer REALLY happens & how a contract looks – The Secret Footballer

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The Chinese whisper is really gathering pace by now, but it’s never long before another lazy blog compiler sees the Don Balón article and has soon attributed the rumour to the Spanish publication themselves. Soon it becomes the generic ‘Spanish reports’ and within the space of a few hours pretty much every live transfer blog has at least mentioned the rumour.

Of course, there’s nothing in the story: the whole thing was the wild supposition of a blogger looking for something to write about. But you’d have to follow the increasingly tangled thread all the way back from a live blog, to Don Balón, to another live blog, to another, to the original blog where the ‘rumour’ started.

Nobody bothers to do this, of course, except Football365’s Mediawatch, but by then the rumour is out there. And a rumour can last forever. Morata’s link to United will be mentioned in virtually every article for the rest of the transfer window – and the one after that if he still hasn’t moved.

After all, Manchester United + Real Madrid + Alvaro Morata makes for a great headline and lots of clicks.

Most football fans are generally quite sceptical of transfer gossip, but repetition has a powerful effect. The original source doesn’t even matter by this point; a rumour can become true for readers simply because of its ubiquity. ‘There must be something in it, surely?’

Fake news here to stay

Though the press get an, ahem, bad press for this kind of nonsense, the type of fake news is actually immensely frustrating to dedicated journalists, who spend hours chasing down leads and verifying sources to get accurate transfer information, only for it to be totally gazumped by utter nonsense involving big-name players and clubs.

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see why many cash-strapped newspapers have not-so-gently advised their sports editor that the war on bullshit isn’t worth fighting.

For those who peddle it, fake news is a virtuous cycle. It benefits agents looking to raise their player’s profile, which can advance contract negotiations or drive up a transfer fee. It drives up advertising revenues for news websites desperate for visitors in the face of dying print editions. And it is gold dust to the notorious ITKs (in-the-know, for those of you not ITK) who use their supposed insider knowledge to gain Twitter followers.

But for the honest reporter, fake news is a blight on the profession, reducing the value of good information in a two-pronged attack.

The easy glamour of a spurious but exciting nonsense doesn’t only drive traffic away from diligent reporting: in the long term, it erodes the public’s trust in even the most cast-iron and trustworthy reports, further reducing the value of quality journalism and depriving the reader of good-quality content.

When it’s no longer in the interests of the media to worry about whether what they’re saying is true or not, everyone loses.

By Steven Chicken