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How does disinformation affect user engagement?

May 9, 2023

By John Murphy, chief strategy officer, Confiant

The phrase, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” has been variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Defoe, Mark Twain, and others. The phrase may have had its roots in a similar phrase, “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes,” uttered by Christopher Bullock, an English actor and dramatist, in The Cobler of Preston in 1716.

The underlying theory has held true through more than three centuries of real-world testing. But, in our all-too-connected digital world, is it time that we consider adding the word “disinformation” to that time-tested phrase? Disinformation has been used relentlessly by extremists, corrupt government, politicians, and criminals for many decades and is now integrated into many online advertisements, social network ads, websites, emails, and other public posts.

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

Misinformation is any incorrect or misleading information with no specific intent to deceive.

Disinformation is any form of false or biased information deliberately spread, knowingly to deceive, confuse, or manipulate others. Or, to knowingly spread misinformation.

Why is fighting disinformation important to the advertising ecosystem?

Because without accurate information, we have no objective truth—we have only opinion. And opinions contain bias. Distortion of the truth leads to mistrust by the audience, lower engagement and eventually reduced readership.

American journalist and TV news reporter, Walter Cronkite was often cited as “the most trusted man in America.". His news style was unbiased reporting supported by factual data. He and many reporters like him helped build trust in national news sources as unbiased arbiters of the truth. Recently, Dominion (the voting machine company) agreed to settle their defamation lawsuit against Fox News for $787.5m, claiming that Fox newscasters impugned the accuracy of the Dominion voting machines without evidence. Aside from the significant monetary costs to Fox News, how do we begin to measure the damage that disinformation did to people’s belief and trust in a national news source?

It has become a similar theme in all types of digital advertising. Ethical advertisers have built the trust of their audience over time. But this trust is threatened by malvertisers who use disinformation to steal users’ personal information and wealth.

Misleading claims are a common disinformation tactic used by malvertisers to lead victims to scams. In the 2023 Malvertising and Ad Quality Index industry benchmark study, Confiant reported that four of the top SSPs had high rates of ads with misleading claims. For the worst-performer of the group, an incredible one in every 330 impressions was a misleading claim, far more than the others.

To help break the disinformation-scam cycle, the Confiant solution identifies (and, if desired, blocks) ads that violate security, quality, and privacy standards Confiant supplements this solution with updates from our security and threat analysis team on specific threats like disinformation and cloaked ads that could present hidden threats to users.

Confiant’s security and threat analyst team has written extensively about the use of disinformation and misleading claims in ads to draw victims to scams. In one example, “Malvertiser D-Shortiez Redirect Tricks Exposed,” we see how one malvertiser uses fake “search rewards” disinformation ads to lure victims into clicking on a redirect scam. In another case, a threat actor called Fizzcore uses celebrity photos and disinformation about fake investment opportunities to lure in victims, a scam which we exposed in “Fake Celebrity-Endorsed Bitcoin Scam Abuses Ad Tech to Net $1M in 1 Day.” The ads are written to seem like an endorsement for specific crypto investments and include doctored celebrity photos that reinforce the disinformation content.

Steering our own future

In conclusion, disinformation has become a ubiquitous element of our digital world, threatening to undermine the trust that is essential for healthy democratic societies. Misinformation and disinformation pose significant challenges for those in the advertising ecosystem, who must navigate these murky waters to deliver credible messages to consumers. As we continue to grapple with the impact of disinformation, we must remember that the truth is more important than ever before.

Success in fighting off disinformation and retaining the trust of our user audience depends on all of us in the ad ecosystem working together to critically evaluate the information we publish, consume and share, and to work toward creating a culture of honesty and transparency in our online interactions. By each of us striving to be more forthright in advertising, we can ensure that the phrase "death, taxes, and disinformation" remains a warning and not a prophecy.


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