Follow the money.

by Joubran Abdulkhalek, Head of Center of Excellence – Middle East at Publicis Media.

Fake news first started picking up steam in late 2016, during the US elections. Since then, I have constantly been reading about this phenomenon. Recently I came across an article published by WARC, which stated that media groups are ‘rallying’ to combat fake news with ‘The Trust Project’, which is hosted by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics. Seriously, it’s taken a whole year?
Well, this is a good ‘step zero’ in combating fake news, which is a cancer in today’s society on a social and economic level. Taking steps to introduce transparency standards is the most basic of forms of combat and long overdue, but a step in the right direction.
I see fake news in two forms. One of them is politically motivated (conspiracy theory, anyone?) and the other is purely to generate commercial profits. However, to many people’s surprise, the latter is probably about 90 per cent of the fake news in circulation.
A recent report from The&Partnership, m/SIX and Adloox estimated that invalid traffic and fraud would waste $16.4 billion in ad budgets this year globally. This $16.4 billion is the primary reason that fake news sites pop up; they want a piece of that pie.
Swaying public opinion is secondary to them, and the US election is a ripe example of this. It is just a means to an end. In an econsultancy.com article, the authors talked about many cases where these fake news sites were not intended to sway public opinion but instead to generate ad revenue for their creators.
Now, what is the solution? This is the question everyone should be asking. Historically, the best way to hurt any ‘illegal’ operation is go after their main driver, la plata – to borrow a phrase from Narcos. This can be done in multiple ways with a quarantine/ incubation period approach:
– 30/60 days without being able to make money on ads, so the fake news sites cannot be as agile as before.
– Give them a minimum article view count to be able to activate ads (YouTube has done this for video, but not enough).
– Tech players pay publishers close to the 15th of every month, and they receive funds after three days. You can curtail fake news by identifying the potential sites by auditing them through Google’s ad-servers or Facebook technology.
– Working with banks and payment providers to halt accounts proven to be fake news.
The problem here is that Google and Facebook are actually profiting from this, as there is no other place to mass-distribute fake news other than their platforms. So, with the stock price at stake, how much will they actually play a role in this? Maybe if they are incentivised and the revenue share model is revised, this can subsidise the loss in profit from fake news by earning more money through legitimate publishers, a win-win.
Tech players and legit publishers need to work closely to set up a mechanism that identifies fake news within certain parameters. I am sure fake news will come up with innovative new ways to bypass the mechanism, but at the moment tech players are five steps behind. They have an army of more than enabled programmers and I think if they just focus on this issue in the next Google or Facebook hackathon they will crack this wide open.

Disclaimer: Views are my own. When speaking about fake news, this is not targeted towards the big media companies such as Fox or RT; it is targeted towards the smaller sites that use clickbait to get traffic.

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