While We’re Going After Fake News, How About Ad Scams, Too?

There has been quite a stir lately in the U.S. in the wake of the 2016 election over fake news that has made its way into Facebook’s News Feed. While we’re focused on this controversy, we should take a look at scam ads, too.

There has been quite a stir lately in the U.S. in the wake of the 2016 election over fake news that has made its way into Facebook’s News Feed. While we’re focused on this controversy, we should take a look at scam ads, as well.

For instance, an ad recently ran in Facebook’s News Feed that purported to be a BBC News story on energy switching. Actually, it was nothing of the sort, and it pointed to a landing page for Flipper, an energy-switching company.

Beonpush, meanwhile, has been described as a Ponzi scheme, but that hasn’t prevented the company from gaining high visibility on Facebook.

Scam ads are just part of the problem, and the issue exists outside of Facebook. The internet is also being overrun with clickbait sites promoted by Outbrain and Taboola that exist to lure readers of legitimate news in order to rack up page views.

Between fake ads and clickbait, digital advertising is looking like the Wild West. With no sheriff on the horizon, the responsibility will fall to publishers to improve the ad and media experience.

The Wild West of scam ads

New examples of scam ads on Facebook pop up all the time. Most recently, BuzzFeed discovered that a Chinese conglomerate advertised dresses at too-good-to-be-true prices. Consumers who purchased them found that the cheap apparel looked nothing like what was advertised.

It’s hard to say how prevalent such examples are. A 2014 study by Bitdefender identified 850,000 Facebook ad scams across the world. Like fake news, many were hard to distinguish from advertising from legitimate products or communication from Facebook itself. The study found that the most popular scam asked readers to guess who had viewed their profile.

Facebook has a mechanism for reporting such ads. But since much of the company’s advertising is automated, it’s a moot point.

Facebook Audience Network policy states that developers are prohibited from displaying ads that contain content that is “illegal, misleading or deceptive or that promotes regulated goods, pornography, adult products or services, casual dating, violence, weapon sales, online real money games of chance or skill, work-at-home schemes, spy cameras and fake news.” However, the company relies on its readers to police such scams.

With 3 million advertisers on the platform, though, it’s hard to see how Facebook’s 13,000 or so employees can effectively monitor advertising on the social network. The company seems more focused on keeping its News Feed clean for advertisers and less concerned about what those advertisers are selling.

Clickbait syndication presents problems for publishers

While Facebook has admirably cracked down on clickbait, limiting such trashy content from News Feed, many publishers have gladly picked up the slack. Thanks to syndicators like Outbrain and Taboola, no session of web browsing is complete without seeing headlines like, “21 Photos of Once Gorgeous Celebs That Got Super Fat.”

Those gullible enough to click through such headlines usually find an endless gallery that is loaded with ads.

While there’s nothing necessarily shady about syndicating such content, it reflects poorly on the publisher. We all know that publishers are in a tight spot these days, but cashing in with Outbrain or Taboola content and its $0.30 to $1 CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) makes even the best sites look cheap and is unfair to legitimate advertisers that buy media above the fold.

Even legitimate news sites like National Review, Reason and Business Insider feature sponsored content with headlines like, “Her Dress at the Emmys After Party Left the Crowd Speechless.”

Such ads bring in income, which is understandable, but they also send readers scurrying to ad blockers. Since Business Insider, for one, has taken the hard line, blocking access to readers with ad blockers, the site is not only aligning itself with such questionable content, but forcing readers to be subjected to clickbait ads or go elsewhere.

That’s the wrong approach. Publishers like The Guardian, The Times (U.K.) and The Washington Post have avoided running such ads, although the latter two use paywalls.

While such publishers are helping their reputations by avoiding clickbait ads, Facebook’s need to crack down on scams is more pressing. Waiting for consumers to complain about ads isn’t an effective policing strategy for scams. If Facebook can use algorithms to keep clickbait out of News Feed, it can similarly bar and blacklist scammers. It’s time, in other words, for publishers to treat digital like a grown-up medium.

Jon Brotherhood is vice president of accounts for the U.K., Europe, the Middle East and Africa at video advertising provider GlassView.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.