Guest Columns
5 mins read

Is the solution to fake news within our grasp?

In the closing days of 2018, New York Magazine published an article on its website entitled How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually. This article is a must-read for anyone involved in digital publishing and advertising.

In case you were wondering, I agree with everything the writer, Max Read, has to say in the article, which is a good summary of the latest reasons why digital advertising is a big black hole which has been sucking an incredible amount of money out of ad budgets around the world every single day for years. In fact, this black hole effect is so pervasive, so long-standing, and so important, we have warned our newsletter readers for years about the high level of fake in digital advertising metrics:

Indeed, I decided to stop publishing the digital marketing newsletter because, frankly, I just could not stand to keep writing about digital advertising when so much of it was fake, and so many companies are obsessed with the idea of invading their customers’ privacy in order to make money. These days when we do talk about what’s real and worthwhile in digital marketing (and there is some of this, but not enough), we do so in the Digital Publishing Report.

So, yes. I agree with Read: there is a lot that is fake on the Internet and in digital advertising. Especially troubling to publishers and advertisers alike should be the absolute reality the majority of the metrics are faked. So much so that companies spending their money on digital advertising would do better opening their windows and shoveling their cash down onto people passing by. Throw a few ad flyers into the money mix and the response rates will be higher than anything really happening on the Internet.

What I do not agree with in Read’s article, though, is his conclusion: “Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it’s our only choice. Otherwise, we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.”

The fix, my friends, lies not in the stars or in cultural and political reform, but in ourselves –  ourselves as in the publishing community as a whole. As Helena says in All’s Well That Ends Well, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie…”

In this case, the group implied in the “our” is the worldwide publishing industry. We need to do our jobs and protect our content. Curated content researched, written, and edited by human beings who know what they are doing and are good at their jobs is the only real fix to the pervasive and expensive fakeness of the Internet.

Repeat that last sentence over and over as long as you need to and chant it at staff meetings. In fact, shout it from the rooftops: carefully curated content published by trusted sources is the only way to make the Internet more real. It will never be totally real, but expecting anyone in Silicon Valley to abandon the pursuit of endless profit is a totally unrealistic notion. The place is full of billionaires who care no more about reality and truth than they do about paying a fair amount of taxes on the money they and their companies earn. To be crystal clear, there is no reason, legal or otherwise, for Google and Facebook to care more about making digital advertising real. Driving the bots away does not make them any money, and reality is not a concept they like or encourage very much.

One thing that would help publishers in this quest is to join in the efforts of organizations such as the Alliance for Audited Media. There is absolutely no reason why digital advertising cannot be audited in the same way print advertising has been audited for decades and more. Audited metrics put forth by established publishers with a trusted brand message will go a long way toward making digital advertising fraud less profitable.

Another thing publishers can, and should, do is stop giving away their content to “bloodsucking” companies like Google and Facebook and insist these companies be classified as publishing companies. Publishers have been grousing about these vampire organizations for years. I see some signs publishers are at least looking around for a few good stakes to drive into the heart of the villains, but it is way past time for a full-on assault.

The value in insisting these companies be declared, legally, publishing companies and not technology companies (as they will insist and will keep insisting) is doing so makes them liable to the same legal sanctions other publishers deal with on a daily basis. One of these legal niceties is copyright.

Another is protecting people’s privacy; Google and Facebook et al make a lot of money from selling personal information and existing legal liabilities are no more than the sting of a mosquito to a very big, very nasty behemoth. Yet another is the full range of legal liability related to making up stuff about people and make money from it

Nine Entertainment Co. chairman Peter Costello has dismissed Facebook’s plans to launch fact-checking in Australia and says regulators should make digital giants liable for fake news and defamatory content hosted on their platforms.”

Costello is completely correct, but regulators around the world, but especially in the United States, will not take action without the publishing industry making this a lobbying priority for 2019 and beyond. Nor will depending on tech giants to change their ways benefit the worldwide publishing industry or its readership. The fix we seek, and deserve, must begin and continue from within our industry. 

Molly Joss, Founder and Owner of the Joss Group

About the Joss Group

The Joss Group owns and publishes a number of paid newsletters including the monthly Digital Publishing Report, which focuses on the technology needed for digital publishing as well as information, news, and analysis related to the business issues and challenges in digital publishing. The Joss Group is a woman-owned, woman managed company.