Buyers’ newest big challenge: Combating fake news
It's gone from an annoyance to a media crisis with the pizza shooting
December 27, 2016
Over the past few weeks, fake news has snowballed from minor election annoyance to a major real-life problem after a gunman showed up at a Washington, D.C., pizza joint ready to play Rambo to help kids escape a child sex ring.
The gunman had read online stories alleging that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were behind the ring running out of the restaurant.
That story wasn’t at all true, of course, but it won’t be the last instance of fake news causing real-life consequences. It may be just the beginning.
At issue for media buyers: How to keep their clients’ ads away from sites running fake news to avoid the risk of having their brands damaged by association.
The challenge is further complicated by the fact that, with the rise of programmatic buying and the third-party ad networks that have been around for years, buyers and advertisers often don’t know where their ads will end up.
Unless they’ve specifically blacklisted a site, an advertiser’s ads could pop up next to a story such as #Pizzagate, as it came to be known, without their knowledge.
Buyers admit this is an issue they’re struggling to navigate, at a time when other digital concerns such as viewability and ad fraud are also weighing on clients.
“We have begun steering them away [from digital] for the most part until problems are addressed,” one buyer tells Media Life.
That may seem an extreme reaction, but it’s certainly understandable, and it’s likely to become more common. The risks are simply too great.
Why advertisers care about fake news
Witness the mess that advertisers on Breitbart News were thrust into after protests broke out over the controversial role the site played in the election.
Many, including Kellogg’s, were not aware their ads were running on the site. Last week the cereal maker found itself in a row with the right-wing publication after it publicly black-listed it.
How to avoid fake news headaches
Buyers say the greatest need is for transparency. They need to know where clients’ ads are going, and programmatic exchanges need to be more open about this.
That means buyers may start to demand a higher standard of website for client ads going forward. Programmatic exchanges will need to exert more quality control and improve standards for the sites they will work with.
“Right now I only work with trusted sources for my digital advertising,” warns one buyer. “I’m wary of companies that seem fly by night or that I’m not familiar with.”
Often the sites serving up the fake news are just a few months old. The people behind them see an opportunity for easy money and jump in.
Peddlers of fake news include everyone from Macedonian teenagers to guys who couldn’t quite make it in advertising, according to various accounts.
You’d think it would be easy to steer clear of these sites. But another issue is the involvement of Facebook and Google in the fake news problem—the two companies that account for a huge portion of ad dollars.
Fake news has spread via both Facebook and Google, and many sites use Google’s Ad Words, meaning legit advertisers end up on made-up sites.
The online giants have said they’re cracking down on fake news, but so far they’ve only taken baby steps, in the view of critics.
The fallout will be this: Media people will be under a lot more pressure from clients to make sure their ads do not run on such sites.
Ad networks will be pressed for greater transparency. The price of programmatic advertising will no doubt rise to cover the greater expense of vetting sites.
And mainstream sites that run fake news at the bottom of their pages will be under pressure to stop running these stories, which get legitimized by appearing alongside real news.
Further reading: Media Life’s primer on fake news for media planners and buyers
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