Who’s to Blame for Fake News? Follow the Money.

Who’s to blame for the regrettable fake news phenomenon? The Right? The Left? Google? Facebook?

Before we move on, however, let’s take a second to recognize the fact that fake news and manufactured hype aren’t new. Look no further than the National Enquirer and publications of that ilk. As it turns out, a large swath of the population are attracted to sensational headlines like moths to light, and have been for decades.

So what’s the catalyst? Programmatic advertising gets my vote. Defined very simply, programmatic advertising platforms provide one-stop shopping for digital ad buyers, enabling brands to place adverts across entire networks of websites.

Within the programmatic space are a subset of companies that aggregate web site inventory, effectively creating a network of unrelated and lower-tier websites and blogs against which they can sell ads. These are called ad exchanges, and while they make it easy for a brand to place ads, they also make it more difficult (if not impossible) to discern on which sites ads will be placed.

Stay with me, we are getting closer to solving this riddle.

A recent Wall Street Journal shed some light on the issue, in an article entitled, “Fake-News Sites Inadvertently Funded by Big Brands.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Inadvertently? Really?

Now, I’m not suggesting for a nanosecond that big brand marketers have any desire whatsoever to associate their companies with fake news.

Nonetheless, it’s happening. How is this possible?

 “We don’t even get passed the name of the publisher” where an ad will appear, said Adam Berke, president of AdRoll Inc., which helps advertisers like LendingClub Corp. and Air New Zealand place ads online. He said AdRoll finds ad space on websites through several partners and doesn’t have the resources to vet websites. – “Fake-News Sites Inadvertently Funded by Big Brands,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8 2016

Now you see the problem, right?

Somewhere along the line, someone was OK with deploying a digital campaign against an undefined network of websites, using a vendor they trust but of whom they don’t ask tough questions. One thing leads to another, and the operator of spurious news sites makes a healthy deposit.

This is the end of the money trail, but somehow, this isn’t a satisfying or complete answer to the problem. We’re wasting energy pointing fingers at each other, sloppy journalism, social networks and search engines. The root cause is a dearth of critical thinking  and a lack of rigor – on the part of both the ad buyers and the news consumers.

Instead of expending energy accusing ideological enemies, maybe we should get behind organizations like the Foundation for Critical Thinking instead, and try to solve the problem, rather than simply laying the blame at the feet of the loyal opposition.

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