Sarah Wingrove, Client Services Manager at Ebiquity Australia, considers the rise, impact, and implications of the fake news phenomenon.

More and more people are turning to the internet as their primary source of news. The web is replacing TV, press, or radio. This is particularly true among younger users. However, the validity and veracity of online news content is now a concern, thanks to the growth in fake news content and sites. The legitimacy of news is compromised further by social media platforms, where real news and fake stories live side by side, making it hard to tell them apart. What’s more, channels such as Facebook and Twitter amplify the reach of fake news.

Fictitious information is nothing new online, but fake news is now being deliberately created to circulate inaccurate information about current events. The commotion surrounding the role of fake news in the recent US presidential election was best (or perhaps worst) characterized by the so-called pizzagate conspiracy theory. This even led to a member of the public using a firearm in a restaurant when trying to investigate the claims for themselves. And following the US election and based on a federal intelligence investigation, the outgoing administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats said to be involved in fake election news.

The phenomenon is also starting to have commercial impact.

The phenomenon is also starting to have commercial impact. Kellogg’s recently pulled its ads from the right-wing news site Breitbart in the US, and this action has encouraged other brands to question whether they want to be associated with controversial, often fictitious content. More and more advertisers are now exposed to fake news sites as brands hand over control to trading platforms, for programmatic trading algorithms search for the cheapest advertising available.

These twin forces of fake news and programmatic trading mean that brands should monitor the quality of environments selected to carry their messages. Relying on a programmatic strategy that goes unchecked can place branded content in environments which are not aligned with corporate values. Brands need to be aware of the parameters put in place through trading desks to ensure their ads are served through publishers that offer quality and credibility.

The twin forces of fake news and programmatic trading mean that brands should monitor the quality of environments selected to carry their messages.

As a result, the leaders of the dominant platforms – with Facebook and Google now accounting for more than 80 percent of both traffic and revenue – are already under increased pressure to use their power to act against fake news. Policies are already being implemented to cut off advertising revenue for websites and users posting fictional information.

But should it be these companies’ responsibility to act as the adult in this situation? Fake news stories thrive on Facebook because the newsfeed algorithm is set up to prioritize ‘engagement,’ based on the number of people reading, sharing, and responding to content. One suggested option is for Facebook to give legitimate, high-quality news sources an advantage in its newsfeed algorithm. But, again, should we leave it up to an automated program to make these decisions or should people be hired to verify news stories which appear on the Facebook newsfeed?

In Germany, by contrast, the government is planning to take a further step to keep these businesses accountable. It is considering legislation to penalize social media platforms that allow fake news to appear on their sites.

This issue will grow over time, and keen scrutiny is needed for the dominant social media platforms who will be increasingly required to put processes in place to limit the volume of fake news published. However, it is also up to brands to determine whether they are happy to be associated with false content. If the stories are creating engagement for advertisers, they may decide that fake news is a better option than fake eyeballs.



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