How to keep your online ads away from fake news

Marketers have the power to combat fake news featured alongside online advertising, but simply boycotting offending sites or platforms won’t solve the problem

Fake news is big business. Despite marketers’ moves against misinformation, the sheer size and complexity of buying online ads has meant simply blocklisting, or blocking, sites carrying fake news is not enough. Many brands insist the problem is with the platforms and they are demanding action.

The US-based Stop Hate for Profit campaign orchestrated a month-long boycott of online ads on Facebook in July. Among the 1,200 brands participating were global names P&G, Disney and Coca-Cola. Industry analysts believe Facebook suffered a drop in ad revenue of around $30 million from just its top 100 advertisers as a result.

The social media giant’s response was to launch a campaign to help people spot fake news, however many contend this doesn’t go far enough. Facebook has also revealed it will block all political and issue-led online ads after US election day polling closes on November 3. This follows an earlier announcement that it will ban new political ads in the week leading up to the election. Additionally, in early-October, along with Twitter, it once again flagged as misleading a post by President Donald Trump about mail-in postal voting.

Real world threat of fake news

The impact of fake news on brands is not simply theoretical. Believers of conspiracy theories around 5G took to destroying mobile network masts, putting emergency service provision at risk. As a result, O2 joined around 70 others as part of the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), a volunteer-led group supported by industry names such as O2, WWF, Accenture Interactive, KIND Snacks, Havas Media and Merkle as well as civil society groups like Tell Mama, Show Racism the Red Card, Stop Funding Hate and even the United Nations.

Nina Bibby, O2’s chief marketing officer, says: “We are marking our commitment to helping the industry establish clear ethics and practices that positively impact customers’ lives and wellbeing. The misinformation around 5G is just one example of the damage fake news can cause.”

One of the first steps needs to be a change in attitude towards how online ads are placed. “The default needs to be changed in the way ads are bought and sold. Brands need to be asking their supply chain what actions they are taking to stop brands ending up next to fake news,” says CAN co-chair Harriet Kingaby.

Cheryl Calverley, chief executive of Eve Sleep, which joined the Stop Hate for Profit Facebook boycott, adds: “This is a really difficult topic for brands. It’s easy as a little brand to make the right choice, but in a really big business you don’t know where your marketing supply chain is.” Pressure should be brought to bear on the supply chain from all sides through industry-wide bodies including the Trustworthy Accountability Group, or TAG, and ISBA, she says.

This is a pandemic of misinformation that threatens our way of life. We are doing this in an absence of regulation

CAN’s co-founder and co-chair Jake Dubbins doesn’t mince his words: “This is a pandemic of misinformation that threatens our way of life and democracy. We are doing this in an absence of regulation. Brands and people like us are having to step into this. Why is it left to volunteers?”

Stepping up to protect online advertising

Increasingly, it’s not just brands and pressure groups that are taking a stand. While a social platform’s commitment may be seen to be left wanting, more experienced publishers recognise fake news is also a threat to their product. 

Reuters is engaged not only in fact-checking its own output, but also works with third parties including Facebook to flag misinformation and demote it via its algorithm so fewer people see it. But why not remove it altogether?

“There is the need to draw the line somewhere so the focus is on harm,” explains Hazel Baker, head of user-generated content newsgathering at Reuters. “There is a whole series of categories where content is flagged because it violates community standards. If it absolutely violates standards, then if it’s flagged, it’s taken down. It’s been strict around coronavirus because the real-world risk is high.

“Other things don’t carry immediate material risk, such as reports around [US Democratic presidential candidate] Joe Biden’s tax plans. Claims have been distributed in campaign videos which are incorrect and miss huge context, but there’s an argument for leaving it up.”

Baker argues there is, in fact, value to the reader in seeing misinformation debunked and advertisers shouldn’t be scared of this. “Nuances need to be explored. It’s the place to advertise because that’s where the eyeballs are. Blocklisting is problematic as these are the news articles dominating our coverage.”

Build a brave and intelligent ad campaign

While fake news is clearly a no-go area for brands, Thomson Reuters programmatic sales specialist Josef Najm believes marketers need to understand nuance if they’re to make the most of their online advertising exposure. The flight from news sites during coronavirus was damaging to all concerned, he says.

“I’d like to have a discussion around brand suitability, rather than brand safety,” says Najm. “Technically, news is not brand safe. But you’d have better performance and better engagement [with an ad] adjacent to a news article that’s informative and empowers decisions.”

He believes marketers need to take some responsibility for their online ads. “That programmatic advertising is automatic is a misconception. If you ‘set it and forget it’, you’re not going to get the best performance. Advertisers are putting a lot of trust on kids right out of college to put together media plans. You have to be the conductor in an orchestra,” Najm insists.

Calverley at Eve Sleep concludes: “Every marketer cares deeply about where their brand is featured and the company it keeps. But divisive views are driving eyeballs and it’s very difficult. We are customers of media owners. The question is could you repackage your media? I would love to buy inventory that has been stamped ‘This is not funded by hate’.”