Just days after facing harsh criticism for allowing fake news stories to be read unchecked across the internet, Google and Facebook are now rushing to put in place policies that cut off advertising dollars for websites publishing fictional information. The move—which aims to potentially stem the flow of false information that some say helped propel Republican President-elect Donald Trump's march to the White House—could be a first step by the tech giants toward clearing themselves of content that's seen as harmful to both users and the brands that place their names next to it.
But if they can't clear the weeds fast enough, will advertising dollars head to purer grounds? Or, with Google and Facebook's amazing scale, does it even matter to brands?
"I think it should [matter]," said Red Interactive Agency's CEO Brian Lovell. "Responsible brands want to advertise on responsible platforms."
According to Sastry Rachakonda, CEO of iQuanti, advertisers don't have a lot of options if they want to go where their audiences are, especially if Facebook and Google continue to get 85 cents of every new dollar spent on digital advertising in the U.S.
"Both these platforms are by far the most effective digital-marketing options—because of the sheer size of audiences and targeting capabilities," Rachakonda said. "Given that users are rapidly gravitating to consuming content online, we don't see advertisers pulling back."
Others think it might be time to reconsider.
"It may be right for certain brands to pause social advertising while sentiment (which their ads appear around) settles into a more positive, hopeful tone," said Caitlin McDaniel, associate director of social media at GSD&M. "But the majority of brands' reputations with consumers will not be tarnished by continuing business as usual with Facebook."
The map is fake. The story is incredibly misleading. And it's spreading like crazy all over Facebook. pic.twitter.com/8MmAZaKxwz
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) November 15, 2016
While advertisers are not necessarily going to pull the plug overnight and walk away, the battle against fake news could be part of the process for better defining Facebook's role in an information era, said Kyle Bunch, head of social strategy at R/GA. Bunch also raised another question: If brands are liable for the claims they make about products, why shouldn't news be held to the same standard?
"I think Facebook has been very good at being a tech company when it serves them and being a media company when it serves them," he said.
He later added: "In less than 20 years, we've gone from Bill Clinton getting impeached after the former president said [in relation to the Monica Lewinsky scandal], 'it depends on what the definition of 'is' is', to the largest media outlet in the world basically hiding behind the same dodge. One has to appreciate one of the world's largest companies embracing existentialism so wholeheartedly."
And in a year when truth is truly stranger than fiction, Oxford Dictionaries on Tuesday named "post-truth" as its 2016 Word of the Year, defining it as "an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."
— Oxford Dictionaries (@OxfordWords) November 16, 2016
What this means for brands
Bunch noted that Facebook and Google aren't the only companies to blame. He said others—including Twitter, Taboola and Outbrain—also share some of the guilt for allowing fake news and click bait to spread either through user-generated content or sensational stories.
"You couldn't be a billion-dollar business in America until now and put stuff out there that's blatantly wrong and not have some accountability for it," Bunch said.
Monik Sanghvi, chief strategy officer at Organic, said it matters to big brand advertisers that major tech companies like Facebook, Google and others do everything they can to ensure quality information is distributed across their platforms.
"Big brands have always cared greatly about 'where' their brand is placed and, even in the programmatic era," Sanghvi said. "There are platforms of questionable quality where brands work to ensure they do not appear."
Sanghvi added, "While it's doubtful that there would be an immediate and sizeable backlash, the topic could easily gain steam if the 'scale platforms' do nothing to change this perception."
This year has taught tech watchers that incremental shifts yield outsized results, said Topher Burns, group director of product innovation at Deep Focus.
"There are many reasons for Facebook and Google to address this problem," he said. "First off, the signal itself is important: that platforms care about the type of content they popularize and are taking a stand. It's also important from a long-term perspective. Facebook left this election cycle being seen as the place to find radicalization and propaganda, to fight with your friends and family. They've got to protect the value of their inventory by taking a firm stance on quality."
According to Scott Linzer, vp of owned media at iCrossing, brands expect advertisers and tech companies to identity where content is fake. He said tech companies need to do something to help right the ship. Even if fake stories exist, he said consumers will continue looking for accurate information.
"While there is scrutiny and concern, ultimately, I think the platforms learn from this," he said.
How tech giants are trying to change
On Monday, Facebook amended its Audience Network policy to state that it will not display ads in websites or mobile apps that hold fake news. That same day, Google revealed a similar mandate that prohibits ads from being published on fake news sites.
"We clearly didn't get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.
Linzer of iCrossing, added, "And I think the more they showcase how they learn, and either tighten controls or use technology to understand the content correctly and whether it's true or not, I think it [could] even more solidify their prominence as leading brands where advertisers still see a good opportunity to continue their investments."
News organizations are also keeping a close eye on what the tech companies do next. Francesco Marconi, strategy manager for the Associated Press, said the approach to news distribution should be reconsidered in order to avoid incentives for fake news and sensationalist click bait. He said the election was an "inflection point," or a "wake-up call," for the importance of factual information.
"Since the advent of the internet, publishers have been trying to leverage distribution channels—such as search engine and social media networks—to drive traffic to their own websites," he said. "The amount of money earned corresponds at least indirectly with the size of the audience visiting their pages, which creates an incentive to generate as much as content as possible."
According to Marconi, further innovation is needed in storytelling so that focus is placed more on quality than commodity information. On the platform side, that means tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook creating a safe environment for news consumers in the same ways they monitor inappropriate content. That could come in the form of a reliability metric, which could be created in close collaboration with news media companies.
Creating a fake news database
To help people properly consume information they see online, one professor has taken it upon herself to crowdsource a massive list of fake news websites that she and others have seen across the internet.
Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, has already identified hundreds—with at least 300 more waiting to be vetted and potentially added to the growing list. As a result, some people have created a plug-in for Google Chrome that lets readers see if what they're reading is on Zimdars' list of questionable websites.
"I do think that for a lot of people who just don't know or who are maybe more moderate, maybe people who are open to different political and cultural discourses, that this might help them more," she said. "Some people might never be reached by this technology, but others could be greatly served by it."
Facebook, in particular, has had success in cleaning out its platform when it comes to misleading-information problems in the past. Six years ago, consumer scams—that often damaged brands like IKEA—were far more common on the site than they are now. Issues surrounding "news," though, may be much more difficult to grapple with. Zimdars said that labeling certain websites as "fake" could open them up to taking sides on defining what is true and not true.
"It will likely be seen as another example of an 'establishment' or a corporate controlling of information," she said, "so I would imagine that among a lot of groups, it could be read as trying to stifle the truth."
So what is truth, and who defines it in the age of the internet? Facebook might still be wrestling through how it answers that age-old question. On Tuesday afternoon Vice correspondent Nellie Bowles tweeted out an exchanged she had with a Facebook spokesperson while trying to learn more about the company's plans.
On the phone with Facebook PR and they literally ask me "what is truth"
— Nellie Bowles (@NellieBowles) November 15, 2016