ARTICLE: How advertising tech firms see fake news, and how this affects the business of journalism

Picture: What’s going on here by John Schnobrich, license CC0 1.0

Different online marketing platforms and programmatic advertising has made it possible to profit from producing fake news. On the other hand, also legitimate news organizations use this infrastructure and the same tools for their livelihood.

Joshua A. Braun and Jessica L. Eklund, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wanted to find out how the programmatic advertising industry sees “fake news”, how it reacts to the use of its tools by hoax publishers and how this approach may possibly reshape the digital journalism industry.

Interviews from ad service providers

The researchers first went through over 200 hoax news sites and logged information about different ad tech services these sites used. They generated a list of companies providing the services, and contacted people from these organizations.

Considering the sensitivity of the topic, gaining interviewees was difficult, the authors report. Through snowball sampling, they eventually interviewed 20 online advertising professionals from 17 different companies in the United States.

Three perspectives on hoax sites

Firstly, ad tech firms see hoax news sites as a brand safety issues. Secondly, the sites were categorized as long tail sites, where the majority of problems with fraud and brand safety occur. Thirdly, hoax sites were also often associated with ad fraud: the sites were mainly built as money-making schemes. The same publishers were even found to be operating hoax websites espousing opposing partisan perspectives.

The interviewees stated that it would be ideal to have total transparency about where ads are placed and what intermediaries are involved. In practice, because of the vast number of intermediaries handling each advertising transaction, this level transparency is not reached.

Different solutions

Some solutions were proposed in the interviews. Trade groups could help developing rules and ensuring best practices. The actions of industry leaders, such as Google, would also have a big influence on where advertising money is directed. Use of verification services, actions of individual ad tech firms, the ways in which advertisers want to buy ads, and dedicated iniatives (such as the Open Brand Safety iniative) could help.

Business-to-business intermediaries, such as ad tech firms, play “a structuring role in the larger media ecosystem and impact its ability to support a healthy public discourse”, the authors conclude. These actors have their own incentives rather than being neutral providers of technical infrastructures.

The study suggests that news organizations will have enter into increasingly unconventional relationships with the advertising industry, or to move away from ad-driven business models. An alternative to these could be policy reforms that chart a third way, Braun and Eklund write.

The article “Fake News, Real Money” was published in Digital Journalism and is available on the publisher’s website (free abstract).

Picture: What’s going on here by John Schnobrich, license CC0 1.0

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