Creating brand safe markets in a digital world

MIKKO KOTILA

MIKKO KOTILA

5th of April 2019

The sensational reporting we find in the media, regarding so-called “fake-news,” does little more than scratches the surface of what has grown into a multi-billion dollar political clickbait eco-system. This article is first in a series that quantifies the problem in meaningful terms.

Inside the hyperpartisan and “fake” news eco-system

This year several billion dollars in online media spend goes directly into funding divisive hyperpartisan content. There are thousands of sites that share this new lucrative business model; publish virulent political clickbait, use social media to make the content spread like wildfire, and monetize the traffic with major ad platforms. Instead of being legitimate news sources, these sites represent the latest in two decades of get-rich-quick schemes that exploit the internet users and advertisers. Already during the 2016 US Presidential Election, more than a billion in advertising dollars went to fake and hyperpartisan news sites. The idea is very simple; use disinformation and emotional triggers to maximize the impact of political messaging. The goal is political gain, money, or both. For the first time in history, production and spreading of disinformation have become directly associated with, and significantly funded by major brand advertising. Whereas advertising revenues have in the past been a means for funding quality journalism, it is increasingly doing the opposite. As a testament to this, since 2015, ad-funded hyperpartisan news sites have become the fastest-growing category of websites. Digital media spend increasingly end up funding hyperpartisan politics, adversarial state-level propaganda, and other forms of news content that create division in society. Left unchecked, 5% to 10% of all programmatic advertising spend will go to hyperpartisan news sites by the end of 2020. This new disinformation eco-system is using the ad-funded internet as intended; grab the user’s attention, influence their opinion, and have that somehow reflect real-life events. As most of the operators of such sites are motivated by advertising revenue alone, the only effective way to address the problem is to stop funding such sites altogether.

What does this mean for Advertisers?

For major brands, fake and hyperpartisan news is not just an ethical problem, but a commercial one. Brands can only lose from division between people in the society. For example, when a liberal consumer sees an advertisement on a conservative site, the assumption is that the brand explicitly sponsors the content. Researchers found that people who saw banana on-screen in a superstitious context were later far more likely to associate banana with superstition.

In addition to the customers who buy products, a company also needs to consider investors, and their attitudes towards the company. The responsibility of a corporation is to its shareholders. Consequently there is no way to justify funding hyperpartisan content with media budgets; it would always be against the perceived values of a notable part of the shareholders. In addition to the damage resulting from the negative brand association, many other negative consequences are arising from hyperpartisan news ecosystem.