Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Dec 01

Solutions to Fake News 1: Deny Lie Merchants Access to Premium Ad Revenue

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?

There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.

journalist taking notes rather than creating fake news stories

Actual journalists take notes and try to verify information before publishing. Fake News sites just make stuff up.

The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).

A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:

  1. Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
  2. Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
  3. Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.

A history of fake news reporting here on Sips

I’ve written about these kinds of scams here on Sips.

I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.

All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.

Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:

Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.

The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.

Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.

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Jan 19

Predictions for 2015: Ad v. Subscription Journalism Fight Gets Deadly

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

As the “New” wears off of “New Media,” investors start to expect results

Years ago, I did the first big case study for the NAA, back when newspaper revenues were in free fall, and publishers were desperately flailing around for a revenue stream – any revenue stream – that might provide a lifeline with their news organizations. At the time, paywalls were still a very dirty word with the digerati, as they seemed to reflect the very worst of Old Media Thinking.

Annenberg Media Center converged newsroom

Is the modern newsroom going to turn into something of an ad production studio? Or will there be some other way for it to survive?

Information wants to be free after all, and back then, there were some very prominent failures with trying to get people to pay for content. El Pais, which had been the market leading national newspaper of Spain, put up a paywall in the early 2000s, and then three years later, took it down after it had basically destroyed their standing in the marketplace. El Pais spent millions of dollars trying to win back the audience that had deserted them.

But then along came the crash in 2008, and the bottom fell out of the ad market (again). This time, unlike the dot-com crash of 2001, the revenues did not bottom out in 6 months, and then start climbing back again. No, this time there were insidious new technologies on the rise that have pretty much destroyed the value of the banner ad: the rise of RTB (real-time bidding) or “programmatic ad buying.”

In a nutshell, RTB allows an advertiser to reach an audience, no matter where it is on the web. Say you want to reach housewives under 35 with kids in school, who looked at washing machines in the past year. No problem. Just sign up with a programmatic bidding outlet, and you can buy banner ads across the internet that will deliver you that audience.

Great for advertisers. Disastrous for publishers.

Why? Well, because the supply of space on the web is basically infinite. That means our old friends supply and demand kick in – with a vengeance. The result has been that CPMs for ads are on a race to rock-bottom. Banner advertising is essentially going to be utterly worthless soon, which means that there is going to have to be yet another shift in how premium content publishers support themselves.

And no, we cannot just crank up subscription rates to the point where the readers pay for everything. Even at the mighty New York Times, with its much-lauded paywall, there is a recognition that doubling the subscription rates will pretty much kill the business. Not to mention the fact that putting all good & decent information behind a paywall pretty much ensures that anyone without means – that is, ordinary folks – are going to have to subsist on a diet of cheap&shoddy news. Yep. Find the flaw in that plan.

The situation gets even more dire when we consider the headlong rush to the mobile web. Banner ads are even less effective and valuable there – here, take it from the New York Times again:

The appeal of being able to buy targeted audiences at scale and the simple efficiency of automated advertising makes it a no brainer for most advertisers, and thus most publishers.

Meanwhile, the shift to mobile makes developing effective native ads even more important because, as Levien says, “we have not yet arrived at an effective interruptive format, a banner format, in mobile”.

Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are taking the lion’s share of mobile ad revenue in part because their ads come in the same container as the rest of their content, which works better on mobile devices. The thinking is that publishers need to do the same to compete.

…and here at last we arrive at what is shaping up to be the big fight of 2015. Call it “native advertising,” call it “content marketing,” call it what you will. It’s advertising messages that are inextricably mixed into the news content on news sites. You’ve already seen it in your Facebook feed, on Twitter, on blogs, hell, for the longest time, even in the midst of radio shows.

Why is this going to be A Thing? Well, check out what John Oliver has to say about it:

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