Birds of the same feather: The unmissable link between ad fraud and fake news

Governments in Asia Pacific are ramping up efforts to combat fake news. Photo: The Belfast Telegraph.

Singapore has formed a select committee to tackle fake news, or what it calls ‘deliberate online falsehoods’, and to make recommendation on strategies to deal with them.

First announced in 2017, Singapore’s Parliament moved to set the plans in stone during its first session of 2018 last week. It announced that the committee will make up of 10 members from the government, opposition parties and public sector, and deliberated a green paper called ‘Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications’, jointly produced by the country’s Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Law.

Similarly, governments around Asia Pacific have also stepped up efforts to counter fake news, with China introducing its cybersecurity law in June 2017, which is aimed at regulating unwanted Internet activities like terrorism, rumours and pornography.

That has seen companies like Tencent to put in more effort to stop the spread of online falsehoods after it was accused of violating Internet laws, together with Baidu and Alibaba. In December last year, the company announced in its annual report that it had removed 1.4 million untrue stories a day, which translates to 1,000 stories per minute.

In total, the company said 490 million false stories on its WeChat platform was blocked in 2017. It also claimed that articles published by the company to educated users to differentiate between fake and real news, has been read more than 800 million times.

Tencent said it achieved this by working with over 1,300 experts and institutions to fend off the spread of fake information across its platforms including WeChat, QQ, Tencent browser, as well as its news website and aggregators.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the country’s Ministry of Public Health launched a new smartphone app called ‘Media Watch’ to allow the public to report any fake news or complaints about misleading information they come across on the Internet.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, an assistant professor in the history of behavioral science at the Ohio State University, tells The Drum that these are good moves as the only way the world can fight fake news effectively is by uniting publishers and brands that care about the truth, and making this concern with the truth visible. “Right now, we have a situation where anyone can set up a news venue, and the public doesn't have a way of differentiating who is truthful from those who are not,” he adds.

Inspired by the tide of fake news and other forms of misinformation in the US presidential election and in the UK's Brexit, Tsipursky started the Pro-Truth Pledge, which asks signers from private citizens, public figures, to organisations, to commit to 12 behaviours that research in behavioural science shows correlate with an orientation toward truthfulness.

These behaviours include clarifying one’s opinions and the facts, citing one’s sources, and celebrating people who update their beliefs toward the truth. Private citizens who sign the pledge get the benefit of contributing to a more truth-oriented society, while public figures get more substantive rewards for signing the pledge, in the form of positive media and public recognition because taking the pledge conveys that they are more trustworthy than those public figures who chose to not take the pledge.

The pledge also provides external credibility for public figures by asking volunteers to evaluate the statements of public figures who sign the pledge, ensuring they stick to the truth and asking them to clarify their statements if needed.

“The Pro-Truth Pledge gives truth-oriented publishers and brands a clear and visible marker of their orientation toward the truth, while holding them accountable for the additional credibility they get by signing the pledge via crowd-sourcing fact-checking,” explains Tsipursky. “In both cases of the US and UK, ordinary citizens shared a great deal of fake news; in turn, politicians who used deceptive strategies proved successful, and continued to use lies once they got into power. Such reliance on deception is extremely dangerous to political systems, and bound to lead to corruption and authoritarianism: this great danger inspired me to start the pledge project.”

In addition, Tsipursky underlines the importance of fact checking, as without it, one simply cannot differentiate lies from the truth. “Research on the confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to our beliefs. Our emotions are much more powerful than our reason, and we tend to go with our guts when perceiving new information. So, if we don't make a constant policy of fact-checking, we will always tend to reject accurate information that goes against our beliefs, and wind up believing lies,” he says.

However, Tsipursky does not believe fake news can be eliminated completely, in the next several decades at least, and given the disruption caused by social media, where people can now be enclosed in echo chambers and get only the news they want to hear, and what research shows as people's lack of ability to separate truth from facts online, those who want to manipulate people will get ahead through producing fake news. He also points to a link between fake news and ad fraud.

‘Likewise, social media giants are not incentivised to get rid of fake news, since fake news creators pay good money for ads. However, fake news can be reduced. We ran a study at Ohio State University showing that taking the Pro-Truth Pledge substantially reduces the sharing of misinformation,” he says.

One of the social media giants Tsipurksy was referring to is Facebook, which is still struggling to combat fake news, despite starting its journalism project in January 2017. However, publishers have complained that the initiative has not delivered, merely a public relations exercise and that the company is refusing to disclose data that they want.

A white paper report on combating ad fraud and fake news sites produced by AppNexus meanwhile, backs up Tsipurksy’s link between fake news and ad fraud, as it found that viral content has become a gateway for online ad fraud because viral content publishers frequently acquire traffic from third-party sources of questionable repute and knowingly create or purchase invalid traffic with the express intent of ripping off advertisers.

These contents manipulate users’ mood to generate clicks and shares as many fake news publishers are motivated by advertising money as much as they are by ideology because selling ads on fake news sites could earn these publishers US $0.20 for every visitor who clicked and if some of the content went viral organically, publishers will earn US $50,000, even as they mislead these consumers and voters.

The report advises advertisers and publishers to investigate the traffic acquisition firms in their programmatic supply chains as bad actors are using various methods like cloudbots, traffic exchanges, PPC Exchanges and Botnets to fool the system, just some fraudulent schemes that publishers should avoid entirely.

Aside from AppNexus, Sizmek director of product strategy John Douglas and The Trade Desk founder Jeff Green have also spoken about the responsibility that adtech has in supporting quality journalism to combat fake news.

If publishers and brands heed Tsipursky’s advice to unite and learn how to detect common digital markers, they can choke off the money that funds fake news publishers and low-quality websites. And if they can choke off the money, they can diminish the ability of bad actors to dissemble, misinform, and poison the public sphere with ad fraud and fake news.

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