Marc Goldberg, Trust Metrics, chief executive officer, argues that the low barrier to entry in the world of online publishing leaves advertisers open to ploys employed by such peddlers of hate. Here he explains how media-buyers can steer clear of negative brand association while taking into account the nuances of the 24//7 news cycle in an era of ever-widening political polarization.
Low barriers to entry open the floodgates to ‘click-hate’
The low barrier to entry for setting up a site and entering the advertising ecosystem is so low that anyone can make a site and generate ad revenue. Most of these sites are completely benign clickbait; however, when a site is designed to engage and enrage a user we should take notice. Snappy headlines and stories that are too amazing to be true engage a legitimate audience that ends up enraged through powerful hate speech and propaganda within the site. These lies are not harmless either, recent studies have shown that it doesn’t take much for a fake story to spread and falsehood has diffused faster than the truth.
This has created what we like to call ‘click-hate’. It is a common practice to get a user to a website to generate ad dollars and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this relationship, with 66% of consumers claiming they would trust a brand less if they advertised on a platform that contained fake news. Click-hate sites also contain several true stories to add credence to the handful of fabricated stories. They use the legitimate stories as air cover while promoting the fake stories throughout social media to get clicks. If you are not paying attention, you won’t even notice.
Click-hate-mongers operate in plain sight
Advertisers often don’t notice because these sites have homepages that look somewhat legitimate by copying source code from well-known publishers and often even mimicking a trusted news source’s name or logo to trick users. These sites see humans from those clicks and are viewable and ‘safe’ according to the low bar that industry KPIs have allowed marketers to benchmark. Focusing on metrics alone and ignoring site quality and intent has sent advertisers on a dangerous path. According to research, 75% of consumers are concerned with the increase in fake or biased news sites yet advertisers continue to support them via the above methods.
One might think that broad page-level blocking on hot-button issues would be sufficient, however just because a site contains phrases such as ‘Donald Trump’, ‘Theresa May’ or mention a school shooting does not mean there is a strong political slant. We've also noticed a banner on progressive website ThinkProgress.org that mentioned how the site had seen an increase of blocking – likely from DSPs – due to its coverage of controversial topics.
How to distinguish between click-hate and legitimate channels
However, this technique mostly punishes legitimate sources who want to speak about topics that matter. Misleading sources will find a way to turn an otherwise benign topic, like a pizza shop, into click-hate. We need to understand a site’s intent and potential partisan slant before penalizing a site for discussing specific topics.
Identification of these domains is important. Data dictionaries of strong partisan language and topics – ‘crisis actor’, ‘cuck’, ‘snowflake’, ‘MSM’ have all seen huge spikes in usage since the 2016 election cycle – and a thorough analysis of a site’s quality (examining ad-to-editorial ratios, number of contributors, frequency of updates, time-stamps on articles, etc.) are very good steps towards that goal. In addition, an analysis of site neighborhoods – such as who links in and out to this page? Does this site owner have any other publications? Has this article been copy and pasted from or to a different source? – can be very helpful in finding new sites before they become viral sensations.
We believe it is important to be armed with the knowledge that a site like NYTimes.com has a slight left-wing bias while FoxNews.com has a slight right slant these sites don’t need to be penalized for political affiliation, but advertisers should know these things and make a judgment call based on their brand’s sensitivities.
While Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and other controversial figures would defend their First Amendment rights and might even admit that they don’t believe the conspiracies they are touting, their controversial theories reach such large audiences that they snowball even without the continued support of their conceivers. Advertisers, it is your support that helps provide them a platform of hate, anger and controversy that gives them influence. They get freedom of speech, but you don’t have to pay for it
Understanding nuance, and not punishing point-of-view
In a recent survey by Hearts & Science, 70% of people surveyed said they would not recommend or purchase from a brand if they appear in the vicinity of nasty or offensive content. Furthermore, 64% of consumers say a brand’s reputation is at risk if its media appears next to hateful or derogatory content. Media buyers have historically avoided content like Jerry Springer on TV, Howard Stern on the radio, and magazines like Hustler for a reason: brand association, but online, these standards slip too often.
Due to a variety of factors (possibly the huge increase of inventory or over-reliance on technologies that have failed to understand nuance), the standards that were once upheld in traditional media haven’t carried over into the digital buying process. However, while advertisers might be showing less wariness in their placements, it’s important to know that potential customers care about brand association more than ever. The same survey showed how the vast majority (88%) of consumers admitted that seeing a brand they love alongside content they hate made their opinion of the brand decline or it made them decide to not do business with that brand again. Advertisers, you can't afford to lose those consumers.
Beyond the potential financial implications of aligning with fake or wildly partisan content, there are significant social implications – more than 50% of US adults consider ‘fake news’ a very serious threat to our democracy. Advertisers, by placing emphasis on quality and the intent of the domain, you can make a lot of this go away. Consumers – and the public at large – are counting on you to counter that threat.
Follow Marc Goldberg on LinkedIn here