Fake News and Advertising: How to Spot The Fake and Find The Facts

Neil Dawson
Reading time: 7 minutes
30th November 2017

Fake news has hit the headlines yet again as it climbs out of the realms of a disruptive irritation in our browsing experience. It is creeping into our consciousness, disrupting our politics and causing us to doubt everything we read.

Because of this, society is forming a new media paradigm and taking a more analytical view of what ‘real’ news even is. In this shifting landscape, brands and publishers are being caught in the crossfire. Recent, damaging fake news includes, an Xbox One killing a teenager, Ferrero Rocher chocolates manufactured with maggot infestations and Walmart carelessly wasting food. We now ask: are digital advertisers the latest victims of fake news?

Fake news – a dangerous distraction

These false and misleading stories are infecting every online channel and it seems no one is safe. Twitter is the most recent technology giant to face criticism as it emerges that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts had been used by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) to post about Brexit. In a recent speech talking about these accounts, Theresa May’s strong statement hinted at the real danger behind these stories. She declared that Russia is seeking to “weaponise information” in an attempt to “threaten the international order on which we all depend.”

And Twitter isn’t the only social media channel to be affected by this problem. Facebook was awash with fake news running up to the US election in 2016, along with over 3,000 fake ads from the Russian IRA that Facebook states appeared to ‘amplify racial and social divisions.’ This prompted Facebook to respond with a set of steps that they are taking to improve the enforcement and transparency of ads.

Fake news creates such a reaction and is so shareable because the stories are so sensational. They use the full marketing playbook to create captivating headlines, creeping into our subconscious thoughts, playing with our insecurities and beliefs and even voicing opinions that we might not openly express.

How is fake news damaging effective and useful online advertising?

#1: Fake adverts

Accompanying fake news articles are the fake adverts that drive traffic to the content. Increasingly, consumers are beginning to question fake adverts of any kind, so-called ‘clickbait’, that drives users to a site that they weren’t expecting.

Facebook adverts are incredibly easy to create and have a very low entry budget. Although adverts are checked, a surprising number of fake adverts slip through the net.

Martin Lewis, the face of Money Saving Expert, recently approached the ASA to investigate a range of fake Facebook adverts which made false claims using his name. Although the adverts have all been removed, Lewis still feels that there is more to be done, stating: ‘It’s about time Facebook took its duties as a paid publisher seriously and faced consequences, as so many times it has breached them.’

As consumers more critically analyse and doubt the adverts that they are served, it could harm clickthrough rates for the real thing.

#2: Advertisements on fake news sites

With the rise in popularity and complexity of affiliate networks, advertisers are becoming more removed from ad placement, trusting this to third-party specialists. Promoted stories companies are growing in popularity and generating huge amounts of traffic. The two largest, Outbrain and Taboola, have a combined reach of over 1.5 billion people per month.

Using third parties to drive traffic is widespread and effective, but when fake news sites are showing impressive visitor rates, some companies are overcome with the temptation to tap into this. Whilst the majority of brands will avoid fake news sites, it’s not always that simple. Even the mainstream press has published fake news stories, where researchers haven’t spotted false sources. Fake news articles can be extensively shared and receive lots of comments and discussion which makes them seem genuine. As fake news and adverts contain elements of truth, they can be difficult to spot. One fake Russian Twitter user even made it into British papers the Sun and the Mail Online. So, can we really expect even the most well-intentioned brands to avoid fake news sites altogether?

Digital advertising continues to soar

Despite these issues, it’s not all doom and gloom for advertisers. A joint report by Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB) and PwC shows that digital ad spend grew by 18% to £2bn in the first half of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. Ad spend on social media sites grew 42% to £1.05bn, making up over half of all digital display advertising. Although advertising spending has continued to increase, the use of adblocking software seems to have stabilised, 2016 reports showed that 22% of UK adults online use ad blocking software.

Digital advertising is working. As well as generating clicks, it is building brand awareness and loyalty too.

But clearly, there are things that need to change if this valuable channel is to work in harmony with the genuine, free content that it is supporting.

There are several groups who need to work together to bring about this solution…

Technology companies

Social media giants are feeling the pressure from governments and brands as they are called upon to better police the adverts created on their sites. Google’s advert checking policy has already been called into question when fake adverts were found on their AdSense network. With millions of adverts being put live on Facebook, Twitter and Google every day, of course algorithms are being used to check them. But with the use of misleading imagery and seemingly innocent messages, you can see how it might be easy to circumvent these checks.

Snapchat has managed to avoid fake advertising issues so far due to its more restricted advertising policies and human intervention when checking campaigns. Articles are much more difficult to share too, which slows the spread of bogus stories.

Clearly, technology companies have a role to play in weeding out false content. In an age where 62% of Americans get their news through Facebook, providing the truth is an important responsibility so it might be time for Facebook, Twitter and Google to take some tips from Snapchat. Sure, more checks might mean increased costs and more ad rejections, but it will be worth it to ensure the integrity of the content.

But the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with the networks:

  • Governments need to take a stronger line on companies who deliberately set out to trick, mislead and steal from consumers.
  • Brands need to pay attention for where their adverts are placed, asking for more information from their agencies/third parties and being careful not to fund fake publishers.
  • Publishers need to ensure that they aren’t using promoted stories that lead to fake news sites and researchers need to be sure that they aren’t unknowingly picking up fake stories and running them as truth.
  • Consumers need to be savvier about the information they read – fake news articles often don’t stand up to scrutiny and some simple checks can stop the proliferation of this phoney material.

How to spot a fake news story

Facebook has published a handy guide on how to spot a fake news story.

Their advice includes watching out for unbelievable headlines, unusual formatting, spelling mistakes, images that don’t match the content and URLs that looks slightly wrong.

Although this is good advice for consumers, these rules are useful for advertisers too. Producing adverts that don’t fall into these traps will lessen the risk of them being mistaken for fake news.

Similarly, Google have recently launched their partnership with the Trust Project, establishing eight trust indicators that newsrooms can add to their content to reassure readers of the validity and truth behind their articles.

Google News users can also benefit from Fact Check, which has been rolled out across all regions. Only publishers that are algorithmically determined as an authoritative source of information are permitted to review and apply the Fact Check tags which appear on news articles.

Big brands admittedly have it easier in the face of fake advertising, as the familiarity of the brand implies reliability and trust. But with these new tools, available from Facebook and Google, small and local businesses can now benefit from their honest advertising and credible reporting. When advertisers adhere to the rules, they can break through the online fraud to come out on top.

There is still a place for creativity, for satire, parody and guerrilla advertising, but in this fake news era, we need to be just that little bit more careful.

Written By Neil Dawson
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