The economy of fear behind fake news and conspiracy theories
Fake news is a business. Numerous studies have explored how fake news sites profit from advertising.
A darker side of that, however, has been vastly overlooked. There is a burgeoning industry of merchandise — from survival gear to guns that can “protect” people from refugees — targeted toward people consuming fake news and conspiracy theories online. Unlike businesses that advertise on fake news sites unknowingly, these merchandise retailers seek these sites out and often even run them. Hysteria stirred up by the stories published on fake news and conspiracy sites is being used as a marketing tool to advertise these products. It’s native advertising at its purest.
Below are some of the examples that illustrate this profitable phenomenon.
Needtoknow.news is a classic fake news site with a conspiracy theory flavor to it. It publishes stories like this:
The advertisements on the site are clearly targeted toward those with a sweet spot for conspiracy theories. It advertises products, such as as EnvioShield — “the ultimate defense against Chemtrail toxins.”
It’s a food supplement that protects the user from the damaging effects of “chemtrails” — which are part of a conspiracy theory that states that condensation trails emitted by planes consist of harmful chemicals deliberately sprayed on people for undisclosed purposes.
Other advertisements on the site have a similar target audience.
This advertisement is clearly targeting those who distrust “the establishment,” and links to a Bitcoin retailer. The placement of these advertisements on the site is not accidental, as these sensationalist sites feed into the demand for the retail goods advertised on them.
The @DFRLab has already covered the website Anonymousnews.ru. The fake German news site is run by a person who owns a business selling weapons that use rubber bullets specifically designed to scare off refugees. This person advertises these products on the fake news site:
The guns are advertised as a protective measure against refugees and migrants coming to Germany. Literally translated, “Migrantenschreck” means “migrant fright.” The text in the site’s homepage says:
Protect yourself and your family! We offer first-class quality goods, sent discreetly at a fair price. Without annoying bureaucratic hurdles or annoying paperwork. Simply order, pay conveniently and receive the delivery. Simple, fast and discreet — that’s the motto of the “Migrant Fright.”
The fake news site on which the guns are advertised features fear-mongering articles about refugees, such as:
The stories clearly feed to the hysteria that encourages the site’s readers to purchase merchandise advertised on the site.
InfoWars is a well-known disinformation and conspiracy theory site run by Alex Jones. The site also hosts an online store:
The store sells dietary supplements, survival foods, and “preparedness” gear targeted toward the site’s readers concerned about the looming “World War III,” about which InfoWars has published excessive amounts of content:
Similar to Mario Rönsch, who runs Anonymousnews.ru, Alex Jones creates a demand for his merchandise by producing inflammatory stories that prompt readers to visit his online store.
One of the most irrational products available at the store is the so-called “silver bullet.” Colloidal silver is a popular food supplement among conspiracy theorists as it allegedly can be used instead of antibiotics, although no existing medical research confirms this. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration clearly states: “It is unlawful for a manufacturer to represent a dietary supplement containing silver as able to prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat, or cure any disease.”
Alex Jones breaks from FDA’s legal guidance twice in this video alone:
“Henson went into the VA and it wasn’t helping him — two different antibiotics — and he drank half a bottle of this [shows the “silver bullet” product] and it knocked it out.”
“If the antibiotics stop working, what am I gonna give to my kids? I mean [puts a couple of drops of the “silver bullet” in his mouth]…”
He concludes the fiery segment saying:
“They are killing us, folks. They’re killing us by design, and meanwhile [they] don’t want you to have colloidal silver. And I’m sorry folks, I’m going to have colloidal silver. I’m going to use it.”
It is clear that conspiracy theories passed as medical research in the video segment are used to stir up the fear that the government is poisoning InfoWars readers, and to suggest that colloidal silver is the best protection against it.
PI-News is another German-language fake news site. It hosts advertisements for things such as pepper spray and even land in Panama.
These ads lead to a site that sells pepper spray, electric shockers, and emergency food rations.
Translation: “Get out while you still can.”
This advertisement leads to a website that sells precious metals and land in Panama because “civil war” or “the collapse of the economy and the monetary system” might be imminent.
The articles on the site are clearly written to incite fear that would lead its readers to buy the products advertised.
The advertising on these sites does not come cheap. PI-News discloses its advertising rates on its site — a large ad displayed for six months would cost 4,000 euros. PI-news argues it’s fair because they have 75,000–100,000 visitors per day, and, as the site puts it: “our capital is our visitors”.
Finca Bayano (see above) also advertises on Rense.com. The site, managed by “broadcast journalist” Jeff Rense, belongs in the list of old-school conspiracy theory webpages.
Over time it’s built up a loyal audience and is now selling and advertising to monetize this achievement.
It advertises its own products, like BioSuperfood, which allegedly was developed by Soviet Union scientists and heals radiation poisoning:
The site also hosts this ad that is specifically targeting people who believe the New World Order (now) conspiracy theory. The NWO theory refers to the emergence of a totalitarian world government. The advertisement cites the imminent threat posed by the NWO as the reason to buy the storable food in question.
The site’s “About Us” section reads:
We want to get high quality storage food into everyone’s homes. Hard times are coming, and you’re going to need to be prepared. We’re here to help you do it…. Having a supply of stored food could be as important as boarding the ark was in Noah’s day. Don’t take chances with your family’s lives, get prepared now.
Whatdoesitmean.com is a conspiracy site that specializes in apocalyptic-sounding “news.”
It’s therefore no coincidence that the retailers advertising on the site are capitalizing on the site readership’s sentiment to sell their products with advertisements like these:
Both advertisements lead to sites that sell disaster-preparedness gear, such as water, emergency kits, food, books, DVDs and health supplements to survive nuclear winter or the fallout of the contemporary world order that the stories published on the site appear to predict.
The Common Sense Show is quite popular with survival gear retailers, including Finca Bayano, which is advertising on Rense.com and PI-News.net. It also hosts such advertisements as iodine to protect against a nuclear disaster:
The advertisement leads to a website that has an inaccurate news story as a prompt to buy their product. The inaccuracy is in the fact that the pills would be distributed in case of an accident to children under 18 and pregnant women living within a 100-kilometre (62-mile) radius of a plant.
The site also advertises Ready Made Resources gear:
The site sells a wide variety of survival goods and runs a blog with a strong apocalyptic undertone.
The blog sources its news from fake news sites, such as PersonalLiberty.com, Alt-Market.com, and TheDailySheeple.com. This news is used to scare the readers into buying the products the site is selling.
These examples show that fake news’ advertising revenue cannot be curtailed by mainstream brands’ blacklisting fake news sites and no longer advertising on them. Conspiracy theorists and fake news writers will be able to fall back on loyal survival gear retailers that will pay premiums to advertise on these sites. These examples go on to show that fake news and conspiracy theories are not only traffic-generating or cause-promoting tools, but they are also a medium for native advertising and embedded marketing.