Fake News and Social Media: Just How Culpable Are Advertisers?

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By Jeremiah Agada

Introduction

According to Buzzfeed-an American Internet media, news and entertainment company with a focus on digital media, in 2016, over 2.1 million Facebook users shared or engaged with a fake news story entitled “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide.” This article was hosted on a site with a faux “ABC News” masthead to give it authenticity. Countless third-party sites republished this story and it became one of the most shared “fake news” posts on Facebook in 2016. Outraged comments on the post demonstrated the very real effect of this fake news story.

Here in Nigeria, the story may be different but has the same underlining characteristics. Recently, fake news was the focal point of discussions among Jacksonites, an alumni association of the department of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN, where communication scholars and experts alike, focused on the alarming trend of fake news. One of them, Mayor Ikoroha, author and Principal Consultant of Max & Brian Consult gave a narrative on a fake news story that trended via Facebook in a paper he delivered at the UNN Alumni Association, Asaba Branch in December 2018, entitled ‘The Nigerian Society In The Age Of Social Media And Fake News.’

“Audu Maikori is a lawyer, public speaker and a social media personality. On January 23, 2017, he went to town with tweets and Facebook post claiming that his driver’s younger brother and five other students of the College of Education, Gidan Waya were ambushed and killed by Fulani herdsmen. The contents of the tweets seemed to be a genuine account of what had happened to someone who is known. The tweets and Facebook accounts, which were shared on twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp by thousands of social media users explained that the story broke because the driver carrying the students was Fulani, and since he was kith and kin to the killers, his life was spared.

“The same day the story broke, the school issued an immediate denial saying none of their students had been killed and that the school had no department of Mass Communication as claimed by the storytellers. The rebuttal by the school received very little coverage as only few people felt inclined to share the refutation.

“What happened next was an escalation of the story by Vanguard newspaper. Their reporter, Luka Binniyat, acting on the story posted by Audu Maikori on Twitter and Facebook, produced a report entitled, 5 College of Education students killed in Southern Kaduna. In the report, which was published a day after the denial of such occurrence by the school, an elaborate story was told and names were mentioned of one of the victims, James Joseph, his age, department in the school, his native town, as well as a detailed description of the fatal journey. The writer went further to claim to have spoken to a management staff of the College on condition of anonymity. This lent the story credibility and caused the outcry on murderous Fulani herdsmen to gain more traction. The story became concrete evidence of mass killings.

“On February 4, 2017 however, Audu Maikori retracted his story on Twitter and Facebook with an apology. He explained that his driver had confessed to making up the story so that he, Maikori, would develop sympathy and give him money to travel home for the alleged funeral of his brother. It is interesting that while the main tweet with the fake news was retweeted over 1500 times, the tweet with the link to the Facebook retraction was retweeted less than 500 times.”

Mayor Ikoroha, anti-fake news activist and
Principal Consultant of Max & Brian Consult.

Unfortunately, as seen from the above, the prevalence and prominence of social media and network sites leads an individual user with no track record or reputation in some cases reach as many readers as NTA, CNN or even BBC. Experts say that most traffic to fake news sites originate from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and that Facebook referrals account for a larger fraction of referrals to fake news sites than real news sites.

Some Theoretical Framework On Fake News

Before delving into the culpability of advertisers or otherwise, some theoretical background to fake news will be useful. Dr. Anthony Ekwueme, a communication expert and a lecturer at UNN gives a perspective on fake news: “In 1644, John Milton argued for unfettered freedom of the press. In his great essay, Areopagitica, considered the noblest piece of English prose, he demanded that, “truth and falsehood should compete in open market place of ideas insisting that truth will ultimately triumph over falsehood.” Later philosophers like John Steward Mills followed suit.

“But here we are today about 350 years later complaining of overbearing harms of fake news. It looks now that falsehood is triumphing over truth as even governments are deploying fake news as a weapon of state. My questions: did these early philosophers foresaw this? Were they to be alive today, what would be their take on this fake news malaise? Does the influx of fake news now negate the tenets of libertarian theory of the press?”

Pat Utomi, Professor of political economy and management, communication expert who is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of Nigeria, a former presidential candidate and the founder of Centre for Value in Leadership (CVL) and the African Democratic Congress lends his voice to the  postulation of the Milton theory: “The thesis in John Milton remains the basic philosophy on which freedom of expression in the US rests. A few years ago, I was part of a US government International Visitors Programme on Freedom of Expression. The team included Abike Dabiri, Shehu Sani and Linda Ikeji.  Most of the presentations from Washington DC., Kansas City and Dallas, rested on the Milton view of truth crowding out lies. I subscribe to it but the wheels may sometimes grind slowly. In these times of instant gratification, that can be a challenge.”

Prof. Pat Utomi.

But then, another communications scholar, Dr. Chidiebere Nwachukwu in reaction to Prof. Pat notes that it is the weakness of the Libertarian Theory that led to the emergence of the Social Responsibility Theory. “The Libertarian Theory gave absolute power to the media and we know the negative outcomes. The expectation that man being a rational being can always distinguish truth from falsehood has been proven false. There are many issues that impinge on people’s perception of issues. There are many whose interests are best served by fake news.”

Why Advertisers Are To Blame

So, why should advertisers take the blame for the burgeoning growth of fake news? Using the definition of fake news as content that lacks sources and often uses sensational headlines to encourage the consumption and spread of unverified or false information, research from Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board (SNCR)revealed that that a relatively high number of advertisers were divorced from their ad placements. Some 42% said they didn’t know where all of their ads were running. That is certainly a problem in a climate where fake news easily proliferates. This implies that the work of monitoring ad placement is left entirely to the media agency without recourse to the damages that may come to the brand from the handful spread of fake news.

From the two instances above using the US and Nigerian market, it is very obvious that to the proliferators of fake new on social media, this is serious business of numbers, of eyeballs and of likes or better still, clicks. But asides political gladiators and governments across the world who seem to benefit from the spread of fake news, do advertisers have vested interest in fake news or are they unknowingly or willingly championing its spread?

Back in 2017, the United Kingdom parliament launched an inquiry into the fake news ‘pandemic.’ One of the questions the parliament asked was, “Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?”

The question asked by the UK parliament is arguably the most important asked, because it invites an analysis of the economic structures that support fake news… and this is where advertisers come in!

With the dawning of programmatic advertising, there is a rat race for the proliferation of fake news.  By the way, programmatic advertising is advertising sold automatically on the basis not of which outlet or news brand it will appear in, but on the basis of how many likes, ‘clicks’ or views it will receive from a target demographic and bought by an advertiser. This is important: Advertisers pay for clicks, likes and views, not news.

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From a general sense, how does this work? Usually, Social media platforms like Facebook, operate a real-time auction which is entirely automated. It serves ads to end users, charging advertisers and transferring payments for each view from advertisers to publishers while taking a commission. In case where the intermediary also owns the media space such as Google or Facebook they get to keep the whole fee.

The publisher, and this could be either a legitimate news company, or a bogus fake news boiler house operating out of anywhere in the world, say Nigeria, Macedonia or Moscow, at any location-bedroom, toilet, office and also contract their inventory with the ad agency, and with intermediaries such as Facebook and YouTube, thereby receiving revenue from a number of platforms proportionately to the number of views and shares they receive. It is in the interests of the publisher and intermediary and sometimes but not always the advertiser, to maximise the views of any news article. More views equal more clicks, more clicks equal more revenue for publisher and intermediary and more web traffic or brand exposure for the advertisers. Though, in some cases, it is not in the advertiser’s interest to appear next to questionable content.

In a hypothetical example, a publisher who uses Facebook instant articles to distribute their content could choose to put ads next to the content. According to a US study, a video ad for example is reported to have a 55:45 revenue split in favour of the publisher. If the article was to achieve a reach of 500,000 users with a cost per thousand impression of $7.19 (the average cost every time the ad was seen by 1,000 people), this would mean $1,977 for the publisher and $1,617 for Facebook.

More importantly and for a market like Nigeria, social media handles and pages also benefit. As advertisers continue to search for ways to maximise spend and reach more of consumers, many of them are turning to social media influencers, social media pages and social media handles to advertise. At this rate, it goes beyond the number of clicks and likes to the number of followers, comments generated and engagement with people.

How Social Media Accelerates The Spread Of Fake News

But just how effective is a facebook page or group in the dissemination of fake news story and how do they get to attract advertisers to themselves? Yet another narrative of Mr. Ikoroha will suffice: “Hope for Nigeria is a popular Facebook page among Nigerians with about 711,000 followers. Posts on the page generate thousands of shares meaning that the reach of their posts goes beyond their 711, 000 followers. On October 20, 2018 at 6.24pm, Hope for Nigeria posted, “Breaking News!!! We Are Giving Israeli Government Days To Deport Nnamdi Kanu Or We Take Harsh Action Against Them. – Lai Muhammed, Information Minister.” One hour later, the site updated the story to read, “Just In – Nigeria May Attack Israel If They Refuses To Deport Nnamdi Kanu – Lai Muhammed”

“Similarly, on November 5, 2018 the page posted another “breaking news” which read, “APC Crises: If I Open My Mouth And Say What I Know, Nigerians Will Burn Aso Rock Down Within 24 Hours – Imo State Embittered Governor, Rochas Okorocha”

“Even though there were no external links to these posts and no other news medium carried them, they generated thousands of shares, heated comments, discussions and reactions meaning that many people take their posts very seriously. For the post alluding to Nigeria attacking Israel, Lai Muhammed had to issue a denial.

“For a Facebook page that regularly dishes out fake news, Hope for Nigeria’s followership of 711,000 may seem inconsequential in a country of about 200 million people. However, it should be noted that Premium Times, arguably Nigeria’s most popular and influential online news platform has about 1.2 million Facebook followers, more than twice those of Hope for Nigeria!.”

An advertiser who is much more interested in the number of people or visits to a page like this will care very little about the damage that may be caused by the spread of such news. Unfortunately, Hope for Nigeria is just one out of the many Fake news (or fake stories) twitter handles, Facebook accounts/pages, Instagram accounts and websites in the Nigerian market which deliberately disseminate hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation purporting to be real news—often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.

With little or no regulation on the activities of these pages and fake news media platforms across social media and with almost no regulation on where advertisers should run their campaigns, society is left at the mercy of a media system that bypasses the checks and ethical balances that had evolved in most standard press systems: freedom of the press was always subject to balancing rights, and self-regulation and professional ethics which encouraged accuracy and responsible journalism.

Before the era of the internet and social media, when news dissemination was only through the traditional media of radio, television and newspapers, the editors of news outlets were referred in journalism as the gatekeepers. Their duty was to make sure that news items were verified before they are released to the audience. But today, every blogger, everyone that has a Facebook account, a twitter handle, an Instagram account or functional WhatsApp application has become a potential major news outlet.

In sum, what this new advertising ecosystem does is establish a much more direct economic link between the resonance and share-ability of individual articles and economic reward. It also enables smaller publishers to thrive outside the ethical and self-regulatory constraints which in the past tightly reinforced an ethics of truth-seeking.

How Advertisers Can Help Mitigate The Spread of Fake News On Social Media

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For a fact, advertising is the lifeblood of social media platforms as well as the fuel for the spread of the fake news. Restricting or redirecting how that advertising works on a platform could prove to be part of a solution to the problem, according to a research from MIT Sloan economist, Catherine Tucker and Occidental College’s Lesley Chiou, PhD ’05. A bulk of the how advertisers can mitigate the spread of fake news here will be based on their research.

First, the researchers found out that there was a 75 percent reduction in the amount of fake news being shared after Facebook rolled out a new advertising system designed to intercept “fake” news articles that contain “deceptive, false, or misleading content.”

The study looked at how Facebook groups spread misinformation on social media, and whether the new Facebook system banning fake news in its advertising networks was effective in limiting its spread. The researchers found that Facebook groups help perpetuate fake news in two ways: They serve as “echo chambers” where members “like” posts from other users that reinforce their views or opinions; and they act as a dissemination tool when members share posts made in the group with their own wider social networks.

“A small fraction of authors account for a large majority of posts, which reinforces the concern that social media allows an individual to reach a wide audience and share information without editorial or fact-checking input,” the study read.

“Our results suggest that advertising has a large influence on the spread of false news on social media,” the report read. “Approximately 75 percent of the popularity of fake news may be attributed to advertising. The policy measure of banning advertising of fake news presents an effective way of mediating the popularity of false information online.”

The same advertising that elevates the influence of false articles could be harnessed in a different way, by redirecting rather than stemming its power, the authors wrote. The effect of negative advertising promoting false news on social media could be counteracted by a more aggressive push for positive advertising designed to disseminate accurate information.

The authors cautioned that such a solution would be far more complex than simply adjusting how advertising is sold.“The actions of platforms such as Facebook in regulating advertising do seem to have had an effect on the volume of fake news,” Tucker said. “However, our paper also emphasizes that in just focusing on ads and fake news, we are missing the bigger picture, which is the organic spread of misinformation by users themselves.”

Tucker added: “The popularity of fake news may occur in the absence of advertising, as users share articles with others in their social network, but working to stamp out misinformation in those posts runs into its own set of problems. Trying to regulate that seems to get us into very problematic First Amendment territory.”

Though Tucker’s and Chiou’s solution tends more towards the platforms than they do advertisers, this doesn’t mean that they do not have a role to play in the fight against the spread of fake news. Advertisers can for one, become more conscious of where their ads are been place. If the platform or platforms regardless of the social media has a known history of posting fake news, ethics demands that they steer clear from it. Constant monitoring of media campaigns in collaboration with media agencies should become parts of the advertiser’s regular operation as a matter of principle.

These among other solutions will be very effective in steaming the tide of fake news as platforms and social media handles will have no choice than to fall into line or risk losing revenue once advertisers start boycotting them on account of fake news.


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