Following Donald Trump’s “surprise” election, the big story has been fake news sites that manufactured (mostly) crazy anti-Clinton and pro-Trump headlines, literally
for fun and profit. The Internet is filled with them, and Facebook and Twitter and Google and others are playing defense.
Randall Rothenberg, the president of the
Interactive Advertising Bureau, watches all this from an unusual perspective. In his career, he was a political and technology editor for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, as well as the
advertising columnist. As the IAB head since 2007, one of his thorniest issues is dealing with viewability issues--a crisis of deception, too, involving ads that are “seen” but not
So fake, he knows. But for Rothenberg, it’s a little too easy to conclude phony stories planted by phony Web sites were crucial elements to the way the
presidential campaigns played out.
But unlike Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who insists Facebook’s fake news didn’t have much affect the outcome, Rothenberg
isn’t so sure of that, either.
The freshness of the election probably makes the analysis hard to do objectively. So many digital modes got thrown into the mix, from YouTube
to tweets to live Facebook videos and even live videos of speeches by the candidates.
Journalists--even real journalists, this time --probably aren’t perfectly
equipped to make the analysis but Rothenberg is sure it will be studied. “It’s a job for social scientists,” he said in a conversation earlier this week. “Who listened to these
things? What was the reaction? What happened to whom?”
Facebook said it is now banning fake news publishers from the Facebook Audience Network, but critics say
that wouldn’t really stop them from showing up on the News Feed, where the bigger audience numbers seems to be.
Twitter says it will try to stop alt-right users. Likewise, on Monday, Google said it would stop ads from appearing on fake news sites--and on the same day carried a
fake story claiming, falsely, that Donald Trump had earned 70,000 more votes than
Hillary Clinton. The vote tally really shows she had narrowly received more popular votes than Trump.
It’s hard to know how big the problem is, (or, maybe,
was). BuzzFeed found a group of Macedonian teenage boys who, it said, started around 140 fake sites during the campaign with real-sounding names like WorldPoliticus.com,
TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They profited from this stuff by generating ads from Google’s Ad Sense.
Rothenberg asserted, fake news essentially, “is actually just another form of click bait,” but lying sites exists “only because there is advertising to support it”
even if those ads are generated automatically.
Or actually, because they’re generated automatically?
For phony stuff that too easily gets passed
around the Internet, “Marketers, agencies, technologists and publishers should realize it’s in their economic and social self-interest” to monitor and police what’s there.
“You can’t expect fake news sites to close themselves,” he said. “Bad shit always finds a way to circulate.”
Internet to an old time newsstand, he said, the vendor never put the questionable nudie magazines “front and center. The bad things went under the counter.” The various elements that
bring together a scurrilous Website with an advertiser and a platform aren’t doing the same thing.
It is a flaw of the the Internet--an almost baked-in flaw--that it moves at
such technological super speed that it can seem out of control.
Rothenberg doesn’t seem to buy that. The cure is human intervention, while the goal of Internet businesses is
efficiency. There's the conflict
“Even the most automated assembly lines has a human being doing quality control behind them,” Rothenberg said. He doesn’t pretend
to know the technologist-level ins and outs of how those safeguards could be built, only that they could be, suggesting Websites could create better algorithms to notice clues to help weed out many
malicious interlopers. And employ humans to make sure it stays that way.
He concedes that could result in “an unending game of whack-a-mole. But if you ever spent a
summer on the Boardwalk you learn that if you do it each and every day, pretty soon you get good at it.”