Fake News: New Name, Old Problem. Can Premium Programmatic Help?

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Programmatic ad buying didn't cause fake news, and it can't fix it alone, writes Julie Clark at Hearst Core Audience.
Programmatic ad buying didn't cause fake news, and it can't fix it alone, writes Julie Clark at Hearst Core Audience. Credit: iStock/filo

Fake news has been in the news, but it's not new. While the story is fading, the core issue still exists. The internet has long suffered from a content quality problem. A decade ago, advertisers were already worried their ads would turn up on low-quality sites. Nowadays, we call these sites "fake news," a term describing questionable content lacking trusted sources that spreads rumors or false information.

But has programmatic bidding made the problem worse, or is it a solution? The answer is both. Going forward, premium programmatic platforms -- which allow publishers to sell high-quality inventory in an automated, highly-measurable way -- will play a big role in stemming the fake news tide.

Programmatic's role in fake news

Programmatic's golden promise was allowing advertisers to efficiently buy targeted, quality ad placements at the best price, and publishers to sell available space to the highest bidders. Programmatic theoretically solves the "quality problem," using algorithms to identify questionable sites.

The reality has been more complicated, with a mishmash of players entering the market. What was supposed to be a tech-driven quality guarantee became, in some instances, a "race to the bottom" to make as much money as possible across a complex daisychain of partners.

With billions of impressions bought and sold every month, it is impossible to keep track of where ads appear, so "fake news" sites proliferated. Shady publishers can put up new sites every day, so even if an exchange or bidding platform identifies one site as suspect, another can spring up.

Working together for change

Programmatic accounts for over two-thirds of all ad buys, and has provided a measurable, efficient way for advertisers to buy impressions. Premium programmatic platforms are popular because advertisers and publishers want to ensure quality placements.

But premium platforms can't solve the fake news problem entirely. There will always be lower-quality sites competing for ad dollars -- and advertisers willing to buy them. How can we work together as an industry to put a big dent in fake news?

Agencies will play a critical role in stamping out fake news sites. Despite programmatic's claims to be fully automated, algorithms aren't always adept enough to identify a site as "fake" or not. A fake site may appear legitimate to an algorithm, but illegitimate to a human at an agency. These people are unsung heros in the manual task of screening.

Advertisers, too, bear responsibility. If they don't buy inventory on these sites, publishers won't have the money to keep creating more of them. This means advertisers must require exchanges to provide detailed metrics on where their ads appear. They must refuse to have their ads appear on "fakes news" sites, even if these impressions deliver high ROI.

Publishers must also be vigilant. They must demand transparency into the sites included on the exchanges where their inventory is sold. Even publishers selling their inventory solely via premium programmatic platforms must ensure that third-party elements that populate their sites don't slip into a gray area of lower quality or "fake news."

Finally, exchanges and ad-tech buyer technology that buy inventory on behalf of clients across exchanges must be held to the highest standards. They must reveal exactly how their algorithms monitor inventory sources, and provide detailed reports to advertisers and publishers about which sites are included in the inventory they sell.

Programmatic didn't cause fake news, but it certainly had a role to play. As an industry, publishers, advertisers, agencies and ad-tech companies must work together to develop ways to use programmatic to stamp out this scourge. Premium programmatic platforms are a start, but there's much more work to do.

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