Best Practices to Avoid Advertising on Fake News

By: Vanessa Otero, Founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media

Spoiler Alert: The ability to truly avoid advertising on “fake news” remains largely unsolved. However, brands can still take steps to reduce the chances of inadvertently support such content.

No responsible brand likes the idea of supporting fake news or misinformation—in theory. The real-life damage caused by untruths in media is obvious. From COVID conspiracies that worsened the pandemic worldwide to election disinformation that left our democracy on the brink on January 6th, it is clear our society has an “infodemic” that we must reckon with.

Avoiding advertising on fake news in practice is difficult because it is a multi-faceted problem that exists across all digital, audio and video media. It is much harder to use technology to detect when content is misleading or untrue than it is to detect when content has other types of brand safety issues. Veracity is too context-dependent for existing technology, and almost nobody—from social media companies to ad platforms to brands—wants to make ultimate calls on what is true or false.

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So how do we solve this problem?

Brands shouldn’t avoid news content altogether. News content is effective for advertisers, as demonstrated in the IAB’s recent report, The News Trust Halo.

The challenge is to actively support good journalism while avoiding junk. The first part of that challenge is easier than the second. Buying direct from established major publishers is a good place to start.

Several organizations and agencies produce lists or packages of vetted publications. Examples include Digital Content Next’s list of member organizations, the Local Media Consortium’s list of 3,000 local news publications and video ad agency NOM’s curated collection of trusted video content on YouTube.

These available lists and tools have their limitations. Source-level or network-level determinations of reliability aren’t perfect because not all articles or shows within each source are created equal. The most well-known manifestation of this phenomenon are the Fox News evening shows that are regularly subject to boycotts despite the overall network’s inclusion in premier industry organizations and “trusted” lists. Additionally, these lists do not yet contain everything.

The second part of the challenge—avoiding the junk news—is harder because there is a long tail of digital junk and increasing proliferation of audio and video junk. These kinds of properties are often promoted to brands for other reasons: in the digital long-tail, brands can increase their reach! In the audio (podcast, radio) and video (YouTube, OTT, CTV) markets, brands can reach fragmented but very engaged audiences!

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Unfortunately, many of the most “engaging” content of the last year included lies like “coronavirus was a hoax perpetrated by world governments” and “Dominion voting machines switched votes overnight to Trump.” Audiences could easily find this content on cable, CTV apps, and at the top of podcast lists, next to ads for many of America’s top brands.

Brands can avoid some of the most egregious content automatically online. Several of the largest ad verification companies and DSPs currently integrate brand safety solutions that include tools for keyword and contextual filtering of disinformation and hate speech. These include IAS, Double Verify, Oracle Data Cloud and The Trade Desk, among others.

Though these existing solutions are “state-of-the-art,” the industry’s current challenge is that that the state of the art does not solve the “fake news” problem completely.

However, many companies and organizations are working toward a day when brands can have complete control over the type of news media they sponsor, even in the age of programmatic advertising.

For now, here are steps brands can take to support good journalism and avoid junk news.

  1. Decide, as a brand, that you want to stop advertising on junk news. It sounds simple, but without the commitment, no action can take place.
  2. Define internal standards of what your brand finds acceptable and unacceptable in terms of both news reliability and bias.
  3. Work with your agency and/or your programmatic platform on media planning that actively aligns with your standards around news content.
  4. Join new industry initiatives such as the Media Roundtable and Global Alliance for Responsible Media to stay on top of the latest developments in this area.
  5. Use currently available technology and tools (brand safety, ad tech, third-party vetting organizations, etc.) out there right now.
  6. Demand that your agencies and ad tech partners continuously seek out improvements to their technology that can truly fix the problem of advertising on fake news.

It will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders in good news media to address our misinformation problem. Consumers, educators, publishers and social media companies all have important roles to play too. And if brands make sure to do their part, we can make the world a better place sooner rather than later.

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