In the last year, fake news has become a deeply troubling issue, as purposefully false stories have amassed millions of impressions on platforms like Google’s YouTube and Facebook and are even thought to have influenced elections around the world. The sites publishing these stories make money from programmatic advertising, and in many cases, brands are unaware that their ads are appearing next to them. It’s not just fake news either – sites hosting extreme or hateful content are doing the same in many cases.
Fake news isn’t just misleading people. We’ve now seen the term enter the poltical lexicon as a catch-all accusation against any negative press coverage. Clearly, online discourse has real world consequences. So at our recent Summit event, we decided to bring in the experts. Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, and Alexi Mostrous, Head of Investigations for The Times of London, have written extensively about the fake news phenomenon, and they were kind enough to join us for a fireside chat last month in London.
Here’s a breakdown of three of the key questions they discussed, where they agreed, and where they had differing opinions.
How did fake news become such a big problem?
For Jarvis, the fake news epidemic begins with the internet’s undermining of the traditional mass media business model. Commentators like Ben Thompson at Stratechery have written about how the internet hurt traditional journalism organizations by removing key barriers to entry – anyone can now hop online, start a web site the whole world can visit, and fight big media outlets for advertising dollars. Jarvis says that in this new world, both non-traditional online outlets and even some mainstream ones have lowered their standards in an effort to keep up their reach, making them more likely to give attention to unverified stories.
Mostrous mostly agreed, but also places some of the blame on the larger digital advertising system. He points out that ad tech, with its many intermediaries and middlemen, is too murky for most brands to know exactly where their ads are being placed. Every brand and agency can only audit the ad tech providers it’s directly contracted with, making it easy for bad actors to aggregate advertiser demand, place their creatives on low-quality web sites for cheap, and rack up big profits without advertisers even realizing it.
What will ultimately get brands to fight fake news?
Jarvis and Mostrous largely looked at this question as a binary: Would brands fight fake news out of a genuine sense of corporate responsibility, or because the bad PR would eventually threaten their bottom line? And they mostly agreed that while there’s clearly a moral imperative for them to do so, brands would be more likely to take action against fake news in order to protect their reputations.
Considering the timing of when we’d see brands take action, Mostrous speculated that our moral code is only now starting to catch up with our technological advancements. Brands embraced the ability to get in front of bigger audiences online, but didn’t consider until recently how their willingness to advertise wherever people were willing to read could affect society. Now that we’re seeing the negative effects of that behavior, Mostrous predicted we’ll see public backlash force companies to take action.
Jarvis agreed, and pointed out examples of how this is already happening: Bill O’Reilly’s firing by Fox News after advertisers pulled out of his show, and organizations like Sleeping Giants shaming brands into withdrawing ads from web sites like Breitbart. People are starting to hold brands to higher standards, and it’s clearly affecting their advertising strategy.
Should regulators force influential platforms like Google and Facebook to remove fake news and other extreme forms of content from their platforms?
This was the key area of disagreement for Jarvis and Mostrous. We’ll start with the arguments of the former.
Jarvis doesn’t believe we should make these platforms take on the role of editor or censor. He thinks that it’s a freedom of speech issue. To him, democracy is a conversation, and most of that conversation now takes place on Google, Facebook, and other content aggregators. If we force them to remove content we find offensive, then eventually there will be much less of that content – the conversation will dwindle. Not to mention, do we really want to give anyone – governments or platforms – the ability to decide what stays and what goes on the internet? After all, as Jarvis asked the crowd at Summit, would you be comfortable with a figure like President Trump setting that policy?
Instead, Jarvis believes these platforms should take measures to give customers indications of how reliable certain news sources are. For instance, he suggests platforms like Google show users the original sources for information that appear in news stories, so they can decide for themselves how trustworthy they are.
Mostrous disagrees. He believes that platforms like Google and Facebook have a responsibility to remove blatantly harmful or extreme content, and thinks at the very least they should be required to do so when such content is brought to their attention. For instance, he points out that freedom of speech wouldn’t protect the New York Times from being penalized if it published a bomb-making guide – so why should it protect Google or Facebook? That example may sound extreme, but Mostrous has firsthand experience with how platforms like YouTube have enabled terrorist organizations to both spread dangerous messaging and monetize with ads.
The answers aren’t obvious
There’s no obvious, single path when it comes to dealing with fake news and extreme content. Even on the subjects where they disagreed, such as the question of regulation, Jarvis and Mostrous both raised excellent points. Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved in one fireside chat.
At AppNexus, we’re already taking steps to protect our advertisers’ brand safety by blacklisting sites that promote fake news, hate speech, piracy, and other negative forms of content. But the next step for our industry is to give publishers new ways to monetize outside of walled gardens. Those companies have limited incentive to remove content that makes them money, even if it is “fake.”
If ad tech can build tools that enable reputable, high-quality sites to monetize through advertising, then we can fight fake news, minimize the chances a good brand appears next to shameful content, and improve the experience of all internet users.