IAB's Rothenberg Says Stopping Fake News Takes Real Resolve

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 really.

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,,,, and 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.”

Comparing the 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.”

2 comments about "IAB's Rothenberg Says Stopping Fake News Takes Real Resolve".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 17, 2016 at noon

    Would this even be an issue had Trump lost? How long do we play the blame game? I think most of us know why she lost, even if NY and California are still confused about Clinton fatigue. 

  2. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, November 18, 2016 at 12:07 p.m.

    Unless we can practically eleminate fake news, all new will be questioned. Just to make money. San. 

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