An ASA decision this week again served as a stark reminder that the distribution of false information via social media is not only an international problem.
“My Labour Party will end child poverty through abortion. No children. No poverty,” declared a statement attributed to Jacinda Ardern by the Make New Zealand Great Again Party.
This is obviously a crude attempt at the fake news game, but the fact this kind of content can be uploaded and distributed as an advertisement is a major contributing factor to the collapse of trust in digital media.
A News Works study released by Colmar Brunton this month found that only 38 percent of consumers trust Facebook. This figure dropped further to 24 percent when respondents were asked whether they trusted advertising on the channel (see the research here).
Trust was comparatively higher in traditional media, with 87 percent of respondents trusting print newspapers and radio, and 86 percent trusting television (magazines were further back at 53 percent). In terms of trust in digital channels, news websites and apps enjoyed the highest levels of trust at 84 percent, followed by Google at 81 percent.
The picture was a little different when advertising was added to the equation. Trust remained at a decent level for traditional channels, at 74 percent for newspapers, 67 percent for radio ads and 66 percent TV ads. There was, however, a drop off in trust for the big digital channels, with Facebook, YouTube and Google facing by far the lowest levels of trust when it came to ads.
The drop off in trust in digital media is in part attributable to the instances of consumers being burned when online.
Consumers admitted to being exposed to scams, having their privacy invaded and having their personal security compromised. There are also some pretty significant issues on the advertising and publishing side, with respondents saying that they’ve avoided clicking on content that looked trustworthy, seen fake news and seen inappropriate advertising next to news stories.
In an article written for Medium, author Rick Webb argues that advertisers have forgotten it matters where we run ads.
Webb provides an important reminder that the perception of a brand is impacted by the location of its advertising. Citing the robust research of academic Amna Kirmani among others, he explains that consumers can intuit the amount spent on advertising on the basis of where those ads are placed. The research showed that if a brand is shown to be skimping on ad placements or placing ads in publications or on websites that appear cheap, that this has an over-arching impact on the perception of the brand.
With the emergence of digital advertising, Webb infers that we’ve neglected all this research in favour of chasing consumers wherever they might go. And although they might deny it, online denizens go to some strange places on the web.
This leads to brands as prestigious as JP Morgan appearing on a news site claiming that Elijah Wood knows “the horrifying truth about the Satanic liberal perverts who run Hollywood”.
Things like this can only happen because the checks and balances that once ensured that advertising was placed in the appropriate location have effectively been dismantled by the automated process of digital ad buying.
Also, while there are many advantages to the democratisation of publishing in the digital age, there have also been a few unforeseen circumstances along the way. A crafty group of under-employed friends sitting in a bedroom in Macedonia now have the power to produce articles that become some of the most-read pieces during an American election.
The checks and balances that previously would’ve seen that content move no further than an MS Word Document are no longer as applicable when an article doesn’t have to pass through an editorial team to win an audience.
Part of the reason trust remains much higher in traditional media is because there are still checks in place to ensure the content published is accurate and fair. Yes, the phrase ‘fake news’ might be thrown around as an insult at what is viewed as a lack of objectivity in mainstream media, but this is not quite on the level of claiming that a pizzeria is home to a child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton.
Facebook and Google have conceded that there is a need to clean up digital and are currently investing funds to put better processes in place to ensure that the most objectionable content doesn’t reach a broad audience.
But this is a battle the tech giants keep losing. This month we again saw fake news flood across social media and YouTube, with articles and videos misidentifying the Texas shooter and claiming he was affiliated with Antifa.
Slate’s technology editor Will Oremus argues there simply isn’t enough being done to ensure that this type of content is removed before it causes harm:
“At some point, we have to step back and look at the whole system and ask whether we’re willing to accept shoddy quality control as the price of convenience. Because the evidence is mounting that systems on the scale of those that our largest tech companies have created are… too large to be effectively monitored. Their whole businesses are built on the premise that algorithms can make decisions on a scale, and at a speed, that humans could never match. Now they’re pledging to fix those algorithms’ flaws with a few thousand contractors here or there. The numbers don’t add up.”
In this context, existing and reputable news brands need to fiercely protect their reputations. The ability to say ‘no’ to publishing certain content is what separates the major news companies from the free-for-all that exists elsewhere across the internet. And this is also where the trust lies.
As former Guardian executive editor for audience Mary Hamilton recently wrote in Medium: “Good journalism — especially good reportage — gives people something important for which there is no substitute. (So does good entertainment, of course.) Many people value it enormously and, if you’re known for providing it, they’ll come to expect it and trust you more as a result.”
News companies have spent centuries perfecting the art of curating an experience that’s based on selecting content that’s interesting, accurate and relevant to the readers.
The only question is whether news providers can maintain this tradition by resisting the ever-present urge for more clicks and continue to say ‘no’ more often than not.