Fake news – a dangerous distraction

Fake news continues to hit the headlines 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?

These false and misleading stories are infecting every online channel and it seems no one is safe. 

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

Daily feed news is a site that uses fake headlines as satire

A study in 2021 found that a shocking three in four people overestimate their relative ability to spot fake news. Since further studies have demonstrated that overconfidence is strongly linked to the potential harm suffered by fake news, this continues to be a very serious concern.

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.

Which? proved how easy it was to promote an entirely fake company and product on both Google and Facebook. They created a fake brand, Remedii, claiming that their water helped people to lose weight, improve their mood and feel better.

Which? fake water remedii example of scam ads

Martin Lewis, the face of Money Saving Expert, approached the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in 2017 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.

Martin Lewis tweets condemning binary trading and fake adverts

Which? estimated in their 2021 study that around 15% of people had fallen victim to a scam advert and reported it. 

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 that need to work together to bring about this solution…

Technology companies

Social media giants are feeling 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.

Politifact is an example of a fact checking website

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. 

Instagram has launched more and more features in conjunction with leading fact-checkers to combat misinformation. This process accelerated significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic to counter fake news.

The same is true of advertising. Sure, more checks might mean increased costs and more ad rejections, but it will be worth it to ensure the integrity of the content.

Five changes we need to see within the wider advertising system

  1. Governments need to take a stronger line on companies who deliberately set out to trick, mislead and steal from consumers
  2. Brands need to pay attention to where their adverts are placed. They need to ask for more information from their agencies/third parties and be careful to not fund fake publishers
  3. Advertising agencies need to be careful to make their ads trustworthy. They should hold a no-exceptions policy to refuse clients who try to distribute misinformation
  4. Publishers need to ensure that they aren’t using promoted stories that lead to fake news sites. Researchers need to be sure that they aren’t unknowingly picking up fake stories and running them as truth
  5. Consumers need to be savvier about the information they read – Fake news articles often don’t stand up to easy scrutiny and some simple checks can stop the proliferation of this phony material.

How to spot a fake news story

Full Fact keeps an up-to-date toolkit on how to spot fake news stories.

Their advice on how to spot a fake news story includes:

  • Check where the story has come from a credible source
  • Look out for poor spelling, fake URLs, and other indicators of poor quality journalism
  • Read beyond the headline
  • Remember that images and videos can be faked
  • Check with fact-checkers such as Full Fact, or the BBC’s Reality-Check 
  • Be wary of any articles attempting to play on your emotions
  • If the story looks too good to be true, it probably is

Similarly, Google has a partnership with the Trust Project. They have established 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.

Example of a Google fact check label

You can also use Google’s Fact-Check explorer to search all fact-checking sites for particular stories

How to spot scam advertisements

The internet is awash with stories of users who have been scammed by Facebook or Instagram ads. There are several telltale signs for an unreliable ad. We advise you to:

  • Check the URL on the ad matches the landing page. Advertisers for untrustworthy  products will often try to mask their actual domain
  • Research the company. Check reviews, check if the business has a valid address or if it is a registered business
  • Check the ad for errors or mistakes in grammar or spelling
  • If the promotion seems too good to be true, it likely is
  • Check the comments. Users who have previously fallen victim to scams tend to comment on the ad. However, extravagantly positive comments can also be evidence of bots. 

What can businesses do about fake advertising?

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. If you are not a household name, actively foster trust within your ads.

E.A.T and Y.M.Y.L are incredibly important ranking signals in certain industries. We at Ayima have powerful experience with maximising these signals. For example, we boosted a nutritional and health advice provider from a 12% to 69% share of voice on the Google search page on their target keywords over the course of six months.

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. 

Our digital experts help these brands build adverts that are attractive and trustworthy. 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.

Want to learn more about building trusted ads? Our experts are on hand if you’d like to chat and create a bespoke strategy for your advertising needs. Get in touch with the team here, we'd love to hear from you.

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