Can bad journalism affect the stock market? The ABC News case study

An ABC News story claiming that presidential candidate Donald Trump instructed retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn to contact the Russians created insecurity on the financial markets and caused Dow Jones to fall by 350 points.

One of of our first case studies published on this blog described how established news organizations can fall into the fake news trap by publishing content that relies on information which is not verified from multiple sources. In April 2017, CNN and Washington Post were convinced that Julian Assange is about to be prosecuted by the US authorities, based on “sources familiar with the matter”. It never happened.

Now, ABC was forced to suspend journalist Brian Ross after a false report on president Donald Trump that managed to influence the stock exchange: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/michael-flynn-charged-making-false-statements-fbi-documents/story?id=50849354.

This scenario is very similar to one from Sep 2015, when the German magazine Auto BILD incorrectly claimed that BMW rigged their emission test, causing BMW’s stocks to fall by 10%. Even after the article was corrected, the information still managed to spread on the Internet with some hundred of thousands of websites picking up the information.

ABC News broke the investigation by senior journalist and anchor Brian Ross on Twitter, gathering some 25,000 retweets in the first hour:

After Michael Flynn was arrested and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on Friday, Ross reported that Flynn planned to tell authorities that President Trump had personally directed him to make contact with Russia while he he was a candidate for president. The explosive claim, which suggested a new dimension to Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, was picked up by many other journalists, and even caused a significant, temporary dip in the stock market, according to NYmag.com. The issue with the insider information used by Ross was that Donald Trump did instruct Flynn to contact the Russian embassy to discuss about tacking ISIS, but not when he was a candidate, but president elect.

The original tweet was deleted and a correction followed shortly, but not after the Dow Jones fell by 350 points:

How could a journalistic mistake affect the stock market?

The original information published by ABC News could have confirmed Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia, creating a huge scandal on the US politics scene.

The tweet was distributed 25,000 times before deleted and the article topped 100,000 Facebook interactions.

More than 8500 news websites around the world picked up and republished the information, according to Google News search. Not all republished the correction or the fact that author Brian Ross was suspended from  ABC News for his mistake.

In total, the story gathered more than 1 Million Facebook interactions; this means that more than 10 Million internet users have seen one of the news articles about this story displayed in their Facebook or Twitter news feeds.

The huge exposure that this story managed to receive is proportional to its impact in society, including the finance sector. The identical behavior and reaction to the BILD magazine story about BMW from 2 years ago shows that journalistic mistakes and fake news (intentional or not) distributed on a significant scale, can impact markets. Still, there is no fail-proof mechanism to prevent these situations, as long as newsrooms and readers do not have an automated tool for verifying information in real-time.

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