Fake News, Brand Safety and SMBs

12/22/2016

The media failed to predict the election of Donald Trump, placing him way behind in all their models until the actual election results came in. And since November 9th, the media have been wondering went wrong. Astute observers pointed to a number of legitimate explanations, from inaccurate polling data that skewed prediction models, to the fracturing of the media ecosystem into social media echo-chambers where people are only exposed to ideas they already agree with.

But around November 15, one week from election day, a culprit emerged: fake news sites, prevalent on social platforms, which propagated misinformation on a massive scale. The issue of fake news has since gone viral, drawing condemnation from figures as diverse as President Obama, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and even Pope Francis.

As a result of this rising backlash, Facebook and Google have recently taken steps to curtail traffic to fake news sites from their platforms. The rest of the advertising industry has looked to follow their example, doing what they can to limit their exposure to -- and participation in -- the fake news phenomena.

How can SMBs do the same?

It begins by understanding how fake news and advertising intersect and how one enables the other. Even as some media and political analysts struggled to wrap their heads around the origins of fake news, many in the programmatic ecosystem saw this as a new manifestation of the familiar challenge of brand safety.

Programmatic advertising allows advertisers to scale their campaigns efficiently by targeting the right consumers across the vast expanses of the internet. While programmatic has been a boon for marketers, the power of such scale comes with some risks. Targeting cookies, instead of working directly with sites and publications as was done in the pre-programmatic era, can lead to situations where advertisers operate with little insight into the content that they advertise alongside and thereby help to underwrite. Some of that content may be wildly inappropriate for their brands.

Programmatic exchanges protect against the worst abuses by blacklisting inappropriate content like sites promoting pornography or gambling. But fake news can be much harder to detect for the very same reason that it has proved so powerful in the election, namely, that it looks just like real news. That’s why there is a movement afoot to flip the script, going from blacklisting the bad sites to whitelisting the good ones. There are just too many bad sites that don’t look quite bad enough to blacklist.

But advertisers should not wait for the ecosystem to develop its own solution to this issue. If the fake news controversy has taught us one lesson, it’s that advertising technology can lead to strange and risky outcomes if not properly supervised. SMBs that use programmatic technology for their advertising campaigns should ask their advertising partners to guard their reputations by ensuring that their ads are only shown in brand-safe environments.