The past 3 years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of fake news websites. The growing use of social media has meant that spreading stories that fit into people's preconceived narratives has been increasingly easy. It is where ridiculous stories like pizzagate, where high powered democrats ran a pedophile network from a pizza restaurant, have come from before being picked up by partisan mainstream news sources. In the hyper-partisan world in which we now live, these kinds of sites have allowed people to take advantage to sell adverts on their sites despite them knowing full well the kind of damage they can do.
One of the people who took advantage of this was Cyrus Massoumi, who created MrConservative.com and several other highly partisan sites. He was very successful in this endeavor, with the site pulling in $150,000 per month at its peak. Although the morals of making money in this way were clearly questionable, what is clear is that it was making him a huge amount. He did this through creating the most controversial and clickbait headlines to get people to click through to his site. He told Bloomberg's Decrypted podcast that when these articles were being written 'there is no room to be objective, there is no room to deliver quality' and that 'We know the title has to be tilted, we know that we have to exclude the facts'.
At the same time that these kinds of sites were making millions of dollars from exploiting a clear divide within society, Facebook and other social media giants were under a huge amount of pressure from governments and companies because of this and the divisions they was causing in society. Facebook, without publicly admitting they had an issue with fake news sites, instead addressed this as dealing with 'clickbait'. Facebook claimed 'We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles. These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer...We are focusing more effort on this, and are updating News Feed by using a system that identifies phrases that are commonly used in clickbait headlines'.
This essentially meant that Facebook stopped promoting clickbait news stories on their site and it meant that many sites suddenly lost a huge portion of their audience. Upworthy, a notorious clickbait website, lost over 60% of their monthly audience, and Cyrus Massoumi's sites had a similar drop. Suddenly what was an innovative approach turned into an unsustainable business. Some companies doubled down and made their headlines and stories even faker and more extreme, whilst others like Massoumi tried to change approach. Instead, he moved more towards liberal-leaning and lifestyle content to try and fill the gap.
Suddenly the thousands of sites peddling fake news on the social platform were left high and dry and with no other strategy in place beyond peddling more false, damaging news, which ironically means that Facebook is more likely to censor them so they lose more readers in the future. Although their first ideas clearly had a huge positive impact on their profits, once this initial innovation stopped working, they had little else to fall back on.
We should not feel sorry for anybody working within the fake news industry, but their current issues are one which almost any company should be able to learn from. We have seen with Snapchat that an unwillingness or inability to move beyond their initial innovative idea has seen their share price almost halved since their IPO in March 2017, and there are thousands of cases where an initial success has not been backed up by longterm success after the ground shifted slightly beneath them.
Innovation today is not simply a case of coming up with a great idea and running with it, the first idea needs to be the jumping off point from which continuous innovation occurs. If we look at some of the most innovative companies in the world today they all started off with an initial great idea, then built upon it and divested in order to grow. Google started as a search engine, Amazon sold books, Microsoft made an operating system, and Apple made computers, today they are each known for hundreds of other huge innovations that helped them become the largest companies in the world.
Even historical incumbents who concentrated on one area are finding the increasing need to innovate outside of their comfort zones, and in many cases are actually damaging their core products. Take Japanese Tobacco International, owners of huge cigarette brands including Camel, Winston, American Spirit, and Sobranie. In the face of the numbers of smokers in some of their key markets declining, they are researching vaping technologies which would actually help accelerate the decline in their traditional product sales. Shell, the World's 7th largest company, are researching solar and wind power, which has the potential to completely undercut their traditional oil business. These kind of moves would not sit comfortably with their original aims, but through changing landscapes they have been forced to innovate outside of what they're used to.
Ultimately, whether it's a site designed to spread misinformation for profit or the most high-tech company in the world, those who fail to continuously innovate ultimately have the same fate, and that's a place that all wannabe entrepreneurs want to avoid.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Cyrus Massoumi owns "fake news" websites, while in actuality the property that he owns are politically partisan.