Andrew Arnold, Senior Director of Marketplace Quality, The Trade Desk
Digital media has faced tough questions about the rise of hate speech online as well as the troubling phenomenon of fake news. Understandably, advertisers have been quick to distance their brands from any association with hate speech. That’s absolutely the right decision. But fake news, while unappealing and, in some cases, dangerous, represents a newer, more nuanced problem for advertisers to confront than hate speech.
Unfortunately, press coverage about both hate speech and fake news in the wake of the election has caused some confusion among advertisers. Frequently, I hear advertisers use fake news and hate speech interchangeably. Yes, both fake news and hate speech are parasitic organisms within the digital media ecosystem, but they aren’t the same. And because hate speech and fake news each represent distinct threats, each requires a different response.
Confronting hate speech online
According to the American Bar Association, hate speech is speech that offends, threatens or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or other traits. While defining hate speech requires legal analysis, combating it is straightforward.
First, every organization should have a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech. In practical terms, enforcing that prohibition means working closely with SSP partners to identify and immediately block sites that traffic in hate speech. As you might imagine, that’s an ongoing process that requires resources and vigilance, so it’s important for advertisers to ask about a potential DSP partner’s capabilities for blocking hate speech. Additionally, advertisers can also take proactive measures by employing pre-bid vendor solutions that offer hate speech filtering. And finally, with activists increasingly turning to digital tools and social media to document and combat the handful of instances where hate speech slips through the filters, it’s important for advertisers to be prepared to offer meaningful and timely responses to consumers.
A new challenge as hate speech spreads to politics
Historically, hate speech has focused on race and religion, but increasingly it’s shifting to the political sphere, forcing advertisers and their partners to adjust. Like other companies inside of the digital media ecosystem as well as some advertisers, we have banned sites that may have begun life as conservative blogs or the like, but metastasized into platforms for hate speech. That decision was in keeping with our established zero tolerance policy regarding hate speech, but it’s important to note that such decisions are increasingly taking on a political hue. Some of that can be attributed to the rise of populist movements in many Western countries, but divided politics doesn’t completely explain why banning hate speech should be seen as either political or controversial. To understand what’s happening and how to respond, advertisers must deepen their understanding of internet culture in the so-called post-truth era, and in doing so we must confront the larger threat of fake news.
The threat of fake news and how to respond
Unlike hate speech, fake news represents a definitional challenge for advertisers. As IAB Randall Rothenberg recently pointed out, fake news “is actually just another form of click bait,” but purveyors of fake news exist “only because there is advertising to support it.”
In some instances, fake news offers a cover or vehicle for hate speech. When that happens, the old rules apply. But what about cases where fake news has no connection to hate? In one commonly cited example of fake news, the Pope as well as Tom Hanks were said to have endorsed Donald Trump, when in fact no such endorsements occurred. That may sound silly until you consider the scale; in the recent election, fake news stories outperformed genuine news stories. If left unchecked, fake news will have real and severe consequences for the integrity of all digital media. Not only does fake news undermine the value of media; the proliferation of fake news makes all media toxic.
So how can advertisers avoid supporting fake news? Unfortunately, a zero-tolerance policy has serious practical limits. After all, how can you ban something you’re unable to define? A headline about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump would clearly be fake news on a news website, regardless of that publication’s political leanings; but on The Onion, it’s satire. Parsing the difference requires a level of editorial judgment that goes far beyond what’s required to enforce hate speech bans.
The question all advertisers must ask is not how to avoid fake news, but rather how to make sure that 100 percent of their advertising dollars align with content that reflects the broader value of media integrity? After all, the central premise of fake news, as well as the larger category of click bait, is that its intent is to trick the consumer. Sometimes that trickery is malicious, other times it’s benign. But the ultimate objective of the content producer is beside the point, because no advertiser benefits from associating its brand with content that is disseminated with the purpose of deceiving its audience.
To that end, advertisers and vendors must exercise editorial judgment, and in doing so, they must look for nuances that would not likely trigger a hate speech filter. Already, we’ve blocked sites that we suspect are misrepresenting content. That block list is expected to grow, and in the meantime, we’re seeing the arrival of pre-bid vendor solutions targeted at curbing the spread of fake news. Ultimately, however, this is a question of a white list, not a black list. Advertisers depend on quality media, free of deception and hate, to carry their messages. As an industry, if we fail to invest in a healthy media ecosystem, the parasites will diminish the entire enterprise. Advertisers are buying audiences, but because their money supports content, they must also ask if that content is worthy of their brand’s support?