Fake News and Discovery Platforms Share Blame with Programmatic
As I’ve previously discussed, programmatic had a large impact on the ad climate in 2016, specifically with fraudulent ad clicks and ads sold to fake news sites. While it certainly played a role in the $7.2 billion lost to ad fraud, it would be shortsighted to place the blame entirely on programmatic.
The programmatic mess was created by ads fed to low-quality or fake news sites, many of which looked enticing on the surface because of high return on investment. And without human whistleblowers in place, ads delivered to fake news sites proliferated exponentially. In addition, many companies lost money through bot-powered fraudulent clicks on ads sent to low-quality websites.
“One of the many problems of programmatic is, ads don’t know where they appear and publishers have very little control over the networks that appear on their sites,” said David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at The New School in an article on Digiday. “It really exposes the inherent flaw of programmatic. When you automate things so much, you can’t moderate it.”
Fake news websites have also taken advantage of the now widely common “content discovery platforms” such as Taboola, Outbrain, and Revcontent among others. These platforms create ad widgets seen predominantly as sider ads at the end or next to news articles.
Revcontent has claimed it's removed all widgets from fake news sites, yet you can still find its widgets on LibertyWriters.com, a fake news site whose creators were even featured in a Washington Post article about fake news.
The widgets contain permalinks to other clickbait-esque stories and are often labeled as “paid content” or “sponsored links” or "suggested for you." While these platforms preach selectiveness, they were still found to serve ad widgets on numerous sites comprised of fake news.
Fake news aggregators make money when these widgets or other ads are programmatically fed to their sites. When traffic is driven to their site and readers click on the misleading widgets, aggregators get paid.
While fake news sites profiting from ad widgets and other ad sales is not the same as fraudulent bot clicks, creators profiting off the deception of readers can be classified as ad fraud.
The point is: It isn’t programmatic’s fault that humans took advantage of the system. The fault falls on the discovery platforms for continuously selling their ad widgets to fake news publishers (even when they say they aren’t), and it’s the fault of advertisers for not putting proper provisions in place to prevent the spread of ads to fake news aggregators.
While discovery platforms are an easy way to make money for many publishers, reputable publishers like Forbes, Business Insider, and CNN need to cut content platforms like Taboola, Outbrain, and Revcontent out of their ad spending efforts. Supporting low-quality advertisers only hurts a publisher’s credibility and provides readers with annoying, clickbait-infested ads that provide zero value to consumers.
The only way the digital ad climate recovers from these issues is by creating premium programmatic platforms where low-quality advertisers (discovery platforms) and publishers (fake news creators) are weeded out of the fold. With whistleblowers in place to keep out fake news and clickbait widgets, the stream of bad ads slowly stops flowing.