In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, the fingers of blame were squarely aimed at the virality of fake news throughout social media and the web.
Especially notable was the response by Facebook and Google in the weeks following the election – frustratingly slow, subtle, confusing, and even denial. Eventually, some acknowledgement came in the form of token commitments to make things better and improve the accuracy of information shared over their platforms.
Medium Shines a Light
We’ve been generalizing the root cause of fake news as algorithmic deficiencies in surfacing factual and newsworthy content. However, a recent, dramatic business decision by Medium illuminates a rather unwelcome spotlight on the deeper reality of fake news and digital advertising.
Ev Williams, Medium’s founder, concluded that it was not sustainable to operate a publication known for reputable long-form content, while being supported by programmatic advertising and the questionably ethical practices that have sprouted from within. So he terminated his company’s ad sales operations, and is now looking to paid subscriptions for monetizing quality content.
Williams’s public announcement of his intentions attracted a lot of attention and subsequent news commentary – tying in his concerns with the compromising realities of the online advertising world.
As it turns out, fake news is a major factor in the success of digital ads delivered through programmatic advertising platforms. The reason is that the false reporting and headlines are especially successful in driving engagement. And that means plenty of eyeballs, and ultimately, the ability to earn ad revenue.
Ads sell especially well with factually inaccurate yet viral content on Facebook and Google’s platforms, as well as on popular third-party websites with fake news stories. Most notorious, perhaps, are the sites that originated from Veles, Macedonia with the pure intention of playing into Americans’ emotions and gullibility.
Many digital ads are based on false or misleading news content to attract the click of an indiscriminating reader. Even more unsettling is that reputable news publications not only sell such ads, but are active participants in the creation of them.
Fake News Explains it All
Advertising seems to be the indisputable reason Facebook and Google were initially hesitant in outright blasting the proliferation of false news reporting. The revenue stream generated in large part by emotionally appealing but untruthful content, plus the unrelenting pressure to deliver to shareholders have made it extremely difficult to outright reject something so critical to the bottom line.
Indirectly, what’s happening here also begs the question of whether a business is inherently sustainable if Wall Street-happy growth is purely dependent on virality-driven advertising, especially from questionable publishers, middlemen, and ad tech practices.
In response to the widespread controversy, Facebook and Google have been taking some steps to stem the tide of fake news on their platforms.
But the general consensus is that these are merely baby steps thus far – and possibly another indirect yet apparent acknowledgment that advertising revenue and false or misleading informational content are inextricably linked.