Advertising and the Moral Dilemma of Fake News

By David Ward

Oliver Munday for ANA magazine


Though virtually unheard of nine months ago, "fake news" has quickly morphed into one of the major issues of the day, triggering a bit of a soul-searching crisis for the advertising industry. The problem isn't just that brand ads are appearing next to — and indirectly validating — fake content, it's that the money those brands are sending to sites that use fabricated articles to attract viewers is the biggest contributor to the explosion of fake news.

In advertisers' defense, many say programmatic media buying — specifically the ability to use cookies to follow and retarget a prospective customer around the digital world — means brands often don't know what content their ads appear alongside until well after the fact. But Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, suggests that's a weak excuse at best, arguing in a recent speech that the ad industry's unwillingness to address this issue is a "moral failure." As an example, he cited news reports on how a recent college graduate in Maryland was able, in just a few hours, to create a completely false story about missing ballots in an Ohio warehouse — and quickly made $5,000 in ad sales.

"People understand that this is a supply chain issue and in fact they've now had a mirror held up to their faces and were told that you can't just shovel this under a rug and say that's a B-to-B problem," Rothenberg tells ANA magazine. "It's not a B-to-B problem, it's a supply chain failure that actually affects consumers."

While the term "fake news" has quickly been adopted by no less than the current U.S. President to describe unflattering coverage of his administration, Rothenberg says the ad industry knows what fake news really is and, more importantly, what's driving it — money. "It's the brands and the agencies together that are lowering the prices beneath the point of stability," he says. "So I think it's the brands and the agencies that need to get their acts together first. The technology is there for any brand and any agency to create a qualified media buying list. If they don't do it, it's because they don't want to do it or they're addicted to the cheap, cheap prices."

Roland Rust, Distinguished University Professor and the David Bruce Smith Chair in Marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, says that marketers shouldn't delude themselves — where an ad appears, especially online, does impact a brand's reputation. "The image of the outlet does rub off on the advertising, which is why brands have always cared about where their ads are placed," he says. "You're seeing, for example, some brands have become targets for controversy after someone spotted their ad next to suspect content." Rust adds the emotional state of the reader also impacts the way they think of an ad, noting, "That's certainly the case with controversial material."

"The problem is if the brands they are targeting don't know it's either fake news or fake users, those sites are making money."
— Scott Knoll, CEO and president at Integral Ad Science


Thanks to the flurry of publicity in recent months, Scott Knoll, CEO and president at Integral Ad Science, says brands are now well aware of the potential dangers of having their ads next to fake news. "There's so much negative sentiment out there about it that they don't want to take the risk, so it's not a hard sell," he adds. "If we recommend that these are some sites you want to stay off, they all want to stay off them."

Knoll points out the bad actors behind fake news are often involved in other nefarious activities as well. "A fake news site will buy traffic to generate impressions to sell and when you buy traffic often times you're buying fake users," he says. "It's fake users reading fake news. The problem is if the brands they are targeting don't know it's either fake news or fake users, those sites are making money."

To a certain extent marketers have been able to use technology to combat ad fraud — and to help their brands stay away from obviously damaging content like pornography or hate speech — but Knoll says those tools are only partially effective against this new problem. "The typical way of classifying content using natural language processing or keyword technique doesn't work as well with fake news, because the same words are used in real news," he explains. "Having said that, there are machine learning techniques you can use that can, for example, look at how many connections there are to a news story. If it's a seemingly mainstream news article but there are barely any third parties that are connecting to it, you can to start to infer that it may not be legitimate."

New York–based cybersecurity/ad fraud researcher Dr. Augustine Fou says that finding a real-time solution to spotting a fake news story and preventing a legitimate ad from being programmatically placed next to it will not be easy. "There is no one technology solution and if there is it would be akin to what the NSA (National Security Administration) is doing in monitoring everything — and then you get to a very fine line as to what would be considered censorship," he says. "The only real effective way of reducing fake news would be to cut off the money supply. And there's current technology that can do that, not by trying to determine whether news is fake or not, but by simply blacklisting sites so that ads can't run on those sites."

That solves one major part of the challenge, fake news appearing on often shady news sites. The other challenge is ad-supported fake news appearing as content on news feeds or other portions of high-profile social media channels. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Apple CEO Tim Cook calls for a massive public awareness campaign to educate consumers to spot and call out fake content.

While on the surface that solution may seem a bit old-school, Fou argues that getting the billions of global social media users on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere to quickly spot and flag fake news can be effective in the long run. "On YouTube, they don't actually have editors to tell you whether a video is good or not," he says. "They allow the community to police itself, by giving it the mechanism — the ability — to flag content as inappropriate. The community polices itself."

"It's a question of how fake does it have to be before it offends the brand."
— Rich Kahn, founder and CEO of eZanga


Of course advertisers' may remain concerned about the brand impact of fake news, but some may be more interested in whether the audience reading that content is a good potential customer. Rich Kahn, founder and CEO of the boutique digital advertising firm eZanga, points out that while there are obviously fake stories, there's also plenty of content that falls into what might be described as a gray area. "It's a question of how fake does it have to be before it offends the brand," Kahn says, citing as an example one client who came to him after being notified his ads were showing up next to fake news stories: "There were certain things he didn't want to be next to from an ethical standpoint — gambling, gun fire, child porn, the average things people on the street have a problem with. But beyond that, his ultimate question was, is it converting." Kahn, stressing these were placements he was not involved with, added, "The client was going up against the larger competitors in the weight loss category and he noticed they were also appearing next to fake news — and he thought, 'If it's OK for them, then it's OK for me.'"

That approach of following the crowd is exactly what Rothenberg and others are arguing against; instead, they believe brands need to take responsibility for where their ads and ad dollars are going.

"It's not enough for brand managers to say, 'These digital companies need to get their act together,'" Rothenberg says. "You're the ones who are financing these companies. You need to have the expertise in-house so you can ask the right questions so you can make sure the process being deployed on your behalf will elevate your brand, rather than diminish it."





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