Major companies like Geico, the Financial Times and Revlon, among dozens if not hundreds or thousands of others, are supporting the “fake news” plague that has caused major controversy in recent months.
After Donald Trump’s surprise win the November election, some even blamed fake news articles that targeted Hillary Clinton for costing her the election.
A new article from Phys.org points out that, despite the widespread criticism of fake news from several leading companies and publications, many of the same companies are nevertheless inadvertently supporting the very sites that produce and distribute fake news.
— Phys.org (@physorg_com) January 29, 2017
“Take, for instance, a story that falsely claimed former President Barack Obama had banned Christmas cards to overseas military personnel,” Tali Arbel writes in the Phys.org article. “Despite debunking by The Associated Press and other fact-checking outlets, that article lives on at ‘Fox News The FB Page,’ which has no connection to the news channel although its bears a replica of its logo.”
While, as Arbel is careful to note, Fox News has nothing to do with that particular Facebook page, the page is underhandedly relying on the name recognition of Fox News, and the logo it stole from them, to perpetuate the story.
Fox News cannot be blamed for that, but it does complicate the fact that many people still have trouble deciphering between legitimate news sources and websites that exist solely to produce completely fabricated stories with sensational headlines to lure people to their pages to generate ad revenue.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that many fake news websites carry advertisements from major companies, lending them a sense of reliability and professionalism.
“[U]ntil recently, the story was often flanked by ads from big brands such as the insurer Geico, the business-news outlet Financial Times and the beauty-products maker Revlon,” Arbel adds.
Arbel notes that the article about the Christmas-card ban “isn’t remotely an isolated case.”
To be fair, a majority of the companies advertising on such sites do not intend to advertise with them specifically.
Most advertisements are placed through ad software that relies on algorithms developed by third-party providers like Google Adsense.
A company can ask that their ads not be placed on certain types of sites based on category or subject, but they don’t usually have the option to exclude specific sites. That can make it difficult for advertisers to determine which websites their ads land on.
Google Adsense and many other ad service providers do, however, have screening processes in place to vet websites where ads are placed based on the quality of the content. No system is perfect, of course.
“A brand wouldn’t have a real foolproof way of not getting on sites that have issues like this,” Joseph Galarneau, CEO of the New York City startup Mezzobit, told Phys.org.
Mezzobit “helps publishers and marketers manage advertising technology,” according to Arbel.
These limitations lead to what Arbel described as “automatic fake-news funding.”
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) January 29, 2017
And there is plenty of money to be made. Last year, Cameron Harris, “a new college graduate with a fervent interest in Maryland Republican politics and a need for cash,” according to a New York Times profile, bought a domain name for about $5 dollar and then spent 15 minutes writing a completely made up story headlined “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.”
The story quickly went viral and earned Harris thousands of dollars in ad revenue from ads for “shoes, hair gel, and web design” that Google had placed on the site.
Harris eventually made tens of thousands of dollars off his $5 investment and a little time. He estimates that he was earning about $1,000 an hour from his fake news site.
Many companies — Phys.org gives Fiat Chrysler as an example — work with ad placement companies to try to ensure that their ads are landing on fake news sites or sites that are otherwise “harmful.” The problem is that it can be difficult to determine “fake news,” and new sites are popping up or changing hands all the time.
“Media advertising was much simpler when companies had only to buy ad space in newspapers or magazines to reach readers in a particular demographic category,” Arbel writes. “Digital ads, by contrast, can wind up in unexpected places because they’re placed by automated systems, not sales teams, and targeted at individuals rather than entire demographics.”
[Featured Image by Sion Touhig/Getty Images]