Everything you wanted to know about fake news

12/15 By Brad Timmers

In just the last few weeks, we’ve seen an intense focus on “fake news” and what it means to the advertising community. And with that scrutiny comes a lot of questions. Here are some answers.

Why is fake news suddenly such a hot topic?

During the U.S. presidential race, we saw a proliferation of fake news websites, either designed to promote opinions or to generate clickbait traffic. The influence of these sites on the election has been covered by credible news organisations – such as by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – and with that high-profile coverage, it’s easy to see how top-level executives at brands, agencies, ad tech companies, etc. became concerned about the safety of digital advertising and being associated with those sites.

What counts as “fake news”?

Any site that is actively creating and/or distributing deliberately inaccurate content as news. However, there has been a tendency to treat all controversial content as the same, whether it’s opinion or inaccurate reporting. It’s important to keep this in mind, as you’ll see people referring to both as “fake news” sometimes.

So, are companies avoiding these sites because they’re distributing fake news, or because of their political opinions?

Whether their concern is being associated with factually incorrect content or potentially controversial opinions, it’s their call. It is up to each company to decide what is right for their brands or clients. For agencies and ad tech companies, it’s then up to them to make sure those decisions are followed. 

How were ads showing up on these sites without the advertisers knowing?

In traditional advertising, whether for print, radio, or linear TV, the advertiser always knows where their ads will appear, because they’re buying specific placements directly from publishers and broadcasters.

In digital advertising, however, there are many intermediaries that come between an advertiser and the publisher:

  • Ad networks. An advertiser may add an ad network to their campaign’s media plan because the ad network will guarantee them a certain volume of impressions. But this outsourcing means the advertiser may not know which publishers the ad network is buying impressions from until after the fact.
  • Audience extension. A publisher may guarantee an advertiser a certain volume of impressions, but not be able to fill that guarantee from their own inventory. When this is the case, the publisher will act like an ad network and buy impressions from other publishers on the advertiser’s behalf – and, again, the advertiser won’t always know which publishers are being bought from until after the fact.
  • Programmatic exchanges. When an advertiser buys an impression from an exchange, they don’t always have visibility into what they’re buying. URLs can be “blinded” (i.e. withheld) or “spoofed” (i.e. misrepresented).

How can you avoid those sites?

The fastest method is using an exclusion list. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, so to speak, but quickly prevents companies from showing up where they don’t want to be.

While IAS technology supports the use of exclusion lists, we also provide a more nuanced approach with our page-level brand safety scoring. This enables advertisers to decide what level of risk they’re willing to take, and rely on our technology to make sure their advertising is only served next to content with a safe score. This approach works for both direct and programmatic buys.

How do you determine which sites should be added to exclusion lists?

While some ad tech vendors will breezily claim that all that’s needed is a little “machine learning”, the truth is that fake news is a very difficult thing to classify, because what one person sees as fake news, another person may see as legitimate.

In IAS’s case, we have turned to trusted media watchdog organisations and media veterans when compiling our list. 

Is this issue going to die down?

While Facebook and Google have pledged to stop the spread of fake news through their platforms, fake news is probably here to stay. Whether it will continue to be as influential as it managed to be this year is anyone’s guess. No doubt such sites will see a resurgence of their traffic during the next election cycle.

Regardless, now that we as an industry are aware of this phenomenon, we can take steps to prevent it from tarnishing our campaigns. IAS will continue to research this issue to keep advertisers safe from inadvertent associations with controversial content.