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How Fake News Could Make Advertising More Believable

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Will advertisers take the opportunity to become more believable in this latest era of fake news and "alternative facts," or will they blow the chance by continuing to hook up with any website that they can buy dirt cheap?

Fake news, of course, is not a new phenomenon. It was called "disinformation" during the world wars and "freak journalism" when powerfu newspaper publishers turned up the heat to promote war with Spain.

Stanley Walker, city editor of the old New York Herald Tribune, noted in his 1934 book, "City Editor," that one of the oldest laws of the Fourth Estate was the one forbidding fake news.

Mr. Walker wrote that "there have been monumental fakes" presented by the newspapers themselves, such as the old Herald story of the escape of all the animals in the Central Park Zoo.

"It is true that, among the better papers, there is a 'professional condemnation' of fakers," he stated. "And yet it is strange that so many of the younger men, just coming into the business, appear to feel that a little faking here and there is a mark of distinction."

The current form it's taking is once more causing big problems for the whole media environment, including advertising and marketing. The combination of digital news feeds, based on algorithms and not journalistic accuracy, and a decimated news force, are making fake news a very real rival for consumers' time and attention.

Fake news even gets discussed and dissected on real TV news shows. The existence of a dossier detailing Trump's alleged interaction with Russia, compiled by a murky U.K. intelligence figure, was covered by CNN (without going into the actual details of the dossier). Then BuzzFeed printed the 35-page document in full. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith defended his decision thusly: "Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing." Its criteria: "explosive, but unverified." One giant step further than the old newspaper adage "If it bleeds, it leads."

So the question is, when fake news is published, does that make it real news? On "Face the Nation" the other week, Washington Post associate editor and columnist David Ignatius said the Trump administration should "welcome" an investigation on Russia's connection to Trump. "I think they've got to get to the bottom of the issues that were raised in this unsubstantiated, so far as we know, inaccurate dossier that was compiled about members of the Trump campaign and Russia during what is now a confirmed Russian covert action against our political system. That's job one."

Mr. Ignatius added that he hopes "members of the incoming administration will commit to let that investigation run its course, issue findings and then establish basic facts. We get out of fake news into real facts."

With advertising, on the other hand, there's no mystery about where the information is coming from—for better or for worse. Advertising has a great opportunity to state its case in a forceful, direct and compelling way so there can be no doubt what the product stands for.

All this will be for naught if advertisers end up supporting fake news because they don't or can't control where their digital ads run. Automated buying is the culprit here. As Josh Zeitz, VP-communications at AppNexus, told Wired: Automated buying "lets you follow users based on what you know about them, rather than relying on the sites you hope they'll visit."

Mr. Zeitz added that ad tech companies have another big responsibility: "Brand safety." Most ad tech companies steer ads away from sites featuring piracy, pornography and graphic violence, he said. But fake news is a new concern, and fake-news sites are using disinformation to pull in big audiences and big ad revenue in turn.

It costs more for advertisers to make digital buys the old-fashioned way: by making individual decisions on where their ads run. The problem now is that digital advertising purchased through automated buying can seem much more efficient than dealing directly with publishers one by one. But it's not worth tarnishing the brand to allow ads to run wherever automated buying takes them, especially just to save a few bucks. And that's before you consider the ad fraud taking place throughout the web. Many of the big brands have been losing sales in the past few years, and I think the fault lies, at least partially, in runaway ads appearing on fake websites where bots do the clicking.

My longtime colleague David Klein believes that while programmatic buying has its place, in our current media maelstrom the pendulum has swung too far. "The best solution right now might be to go back to the past," he told me, "and do in media just what you do when you go shopping for anything important: Buy trusted brands."

It's true some media brands have been tarnished in recent years, but nonetheless it's generally clear what a smart consumer will look for: "You want trusted reporters actually talking to multiple newsmakers, and you want editors -- human editors, preferably in the same country—to oversee their work," David noted.

"You want a media brand with decades of experience in chasing stories to put their name behind the publication, and you want that company to believe in publishing the actual sources of their reporting, whether it's people, data or documents. And you want that media company to be willing to defend and discuss them with readers, and to make whatever corrections are necessary if they do something wrong."

Also not a bad formula for advertising success. Trustworthy and hardworking publications "are the Oreos and Fritos of their space," David added. "You know exactly what you get when you take them home. This is completely not true of the many shadowy, or shall we say 'off-brand,' news distributors that overrun our digital and social web space" -- and that too often mesmerize advertisers with their siren song.