Digital Transformation

Misinformation is causing brands to accidentally take public stances on abortion

By Csaba Szabo | Managing director, EMEA

July 5, 2022 | 6 min read

In a digital ecosystem increasingly flooded with misinformation, brands need to be more cautious than ever about where their ad dollars are going, argues Integral Ad Science’s Csaba Szabo.

As the dust settles on the repeal of Roe v Wade in the US, many are asking, “What next?” They will turn to the internet for vital information: why Roe was overturned; how their state is legislating abortion access; and what their healthcare options will be going forward.

For every insightful, well-researched news publication with accurate answers, there are sites peddling misinformation. If the rise of anti-vaccine movements and climate change denialism has taught us anything over the last few years, it is that bad faith sources will keep appearing — and they can greatly damage the reputation of brands advertising on their platforms. Brands have already been caught advertising on anti-vaccine sites, with the ad spend behind such placements inadvertently helping to fund operations for these sites.

Illustration of woman holding newspaper with Fake News printed on the front page

/ Adobe Stock

This phenomenon has not only garnered public backlash, but also wasted spend for these brands. Companies and marketers have a moral responsibility to help stop the spread of misinformation and a professional duty to prevent ad budgets from being used to jeopardize brand reputation.

The growing threat of misinformation

Though misinformation online is a tale as old as the internet itself, many point to the 2016 US presidential election as a catalyst for the current wave of fake news. The flood of questionable sources has left internet users often unable to differentiate trustworthy sites from non-trustworthy sites, with one-third of internet users failing to question misinformation.

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The issue is well-documented, but the amount of misinformation online is only growing. Recent political polarization, geopolitical events and the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation. False information can spread division, spark hate and create fear and confusion within public life. In the specific case of Roe . Wade, access to correct information is a matter of critical wellbeing. Sites such as LiveAction.org and LifeNews.com were among those flagged by NewsGuard as regularly making unsubstantiated claims about abortion safety.

But it is not just users that are falling foul of misinformation — brands and marketers are also failing to tell the difference. According to the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), it is estimated that at least $235m of ad budgets every year is unwittingly spent advertising on sites that peddle misinformation. This money, along with the air of legitimacy that ads by global brands lend to these sites, only perpetuates the issue.

Negative societal impact aside, brands also need to consider their own image. 85% of consumers would stop using a brand or product if they viewed its ads next to false or inflammatory material. Marketers are well aware of this threat, with 42% worrying about the detrimental effect on their brand’s reputation for advertising alongside misinformation, per data from Integral Ad Science.

How brands can stop the spread

Directing spend away from misinformation is a win-win for brands and marketers. But if the advantages are so clear, why do less than half of brands have clear guidelines regarding misinformation?

Brands need to harness the in-depth knowledge of misinformation experts and pair this with the right tools to create a brand safety solution that has the scale and sophistication needed to tackle today’s internet. Building these solutions into the programmatic process helps brands better avoid outlets that mislead the public.

There will also need to be wider collaboration between brands, advertisers and platforms. Already, steps are being taken by stakeholders to help stem the spread of misinformation, including a Code of Practice established by the European Commission that has been endorsed by the World Federation of Advertisers and has gained buy-in from platforms including Google, Meta, Twitter and TikTok.

Looking to the next wave of misinformation

Misinformation online is unlikely to die out anytime soon. Like everything on the internet, it will constantly evolve. The explosion of video and audio content in recent years has led to the rapid spread of suspect, but highly-engaging online content; and the detection of and protection from such content will need to keep up.

For brands that wish to avoid being associated with inaccuracies surrounding the abortion debate, brand safety efforts must be top-of-mind. It requires working with partners and industry bodies to rapidly identify and demonetize sources of misinformation wherever it appears, which will protect brand reputation and, more importantly, help preserve public access to accurate information online.

Csaba Szabo is managing director, EMEA at Integral Ad Science.

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