COVID-19 Misinformation Marketing

5 ways media agencies can help silence disinformation outlets

By Stevan Randjelovic

September 1, 2021 | 6 min read

Stevan Randjelovic, director of brand safety and digital risk, EMEA, GroupM, offers practical advice to media agency execs keen to stop their clients from funding harmful disinformation.


The best way to fight disinformation is to fund and promote trusted news

Recent global and political events have made it difficult to trust everything we read online, resulting in damaged reputations and in some cases – such as varying Covid-19 therapies – even deaths. Much of that damage has occurred because of disinformation or misinformation – presentation of verifiably false or misleading claims that are likely to cause harm, as defined by the Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB).

Misinformation has many faces. Academic Claire Wardle has identified seven different types, ranging from imposter content (when genuine sources are impersonated) to manipulated content (when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive). To add to the conundrum, due to the politically-charged atmosphere, partisan views – which everyone is to an extent entitled to – are sometimes being mislabeled disinformation simply because others don’t agree with a viewpoint. While some partisan views aren’t ethical, they are not always misinformation; it cannot be a tool to suppress opposing views.

Much like legitimate publishers, media owners who use misinformation will fund themselves via advertising, and that means we can play a pivotal role in combating them.

Here are five ways the industry can disarm disinformation and enable positive change in partnership with quality journalism.

Fund trusted news brands

The best way to fight disinformation is to fund and promote trusted news. When thinking about disarming disinformation, an assumption may be to build an exclusion list of domains or apps you don’t want to feature against, but that isn’t always the most effective strategy as new domains and apps keep popping up. Instead focus on your inclusion list.

Vet them regularly to make sure every publisher is as effective as possible and, crucially, make sure quality sources of journalism are in your media mix. Research by Newsworks, the marketing body for UK national newspapers, found 70% of consumers think a world without newspapers would harm democracy. Its research also showed that 69% think they are a trusted source of news stories, demonstrating the power of quality journalism.

Brands need to make sure they’re including these outlets in their media mix so they’re supporting them and not the trolls. Doing so could make the campaign up to 58% more likely to deliver back profit as a result of this positive association.

Encourage (media) diversity

Inclusion goes beyond just lists. The industry needs to think about diversity too.

Covid-19 has seen potentially dangerous therapies appear in the media. In some cases that has led to domains representing and directed at different ethnic and cultural groups being blocked en masse because they have written about such therapies. However, rather than blanket exclusions, we need to be sensible.

In cases where a domain is proactively providing disinformation then restrictions of course need to apply, but if articles are discussing why such therapies are wrong, there’s no reason why they should not be included. Taking a generalized approach will hurt the diversity objectives of the brands.

Industry and government cooperation

Misinformation is like chimera, and as such it requires a multifaceted approach involving all sides: government, advertisers, agencies, technology companies, social platforms, educational institutions and many others. Nobody can beat the monster alone.

The APB identified five crucial steps: define disinformation and misinformation consistently; identify, monitor and manage the distribution velocity of potential disinformation and misinformation within and across platforms and ad-buying systems; greatly increase the volume, speed and quality of fact checking to support the identification of disinformation and misinformation, especially in high-velocity content; increase the integrity of the fact-checking process and its consequences via measures including deep trusted third-party involvement, auditing and rules, greatly increased transparency and regular tracking; and create a foundation for media tools and approaches to manage proximity to misinformation and disinformation.

The work continues through the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) where social platforms, in particular, engage with advertisers and agencies to share their practice, making them more transparent and accountable.

Introduce ‘know your customer’ policy

Media owners can take advertising that itself is misinformation. Media platforms and the societies in which they exist would be better served if ‘know your customer’ rules were applied to advertisers as well.

While such efforts will not always prevent misinformation from being advertised, basic advertiser vetting would reduce the chances of circumventing platforms’ policies. We should all consider advocating for a ‘know your customer’ policy for media owners.

Media literacy

Teaching people of all ages, but especially children, how to develop critical thinking toward the news they consume is of paramount importance. Misinformation will never be removed completely, but by empowering people to understand it and read it with a watchful eye, societies would spare themselves a lot of trouble.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but the advent of the internet has made the dissemination much easier. The government aims to tackle harmful content via the Online Safety Bill, and the advertising industry should lead the way in combating it.

By better defining, building technology, working with fact-checkers, truly investing in trusted news, introducing the ‘know your customer’ policy and harnessing the power of advertising to spearhead media literacy, we can remove the bad actors’ revenue streams, regain trust with consumers and create a much more brand-safe environment for our clients, while supporting quality journalism and free speech. Advertising can work better for people.

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