Nothing has been more demoralizing for a media journalist than the rise of "fake news," and the challenge of covering its authenticity. That's one of the reasons I've become a big fan of NewsGuard, the analytics and ratings platform founded by Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz to suss it out and put some dimensions around the problem.
I'm not alone. Several big agency holding companies, a number of digital media trading systems, and at least one audience ratings system (Comscore) have embraced NewsGuard's news publisher credibility ratings as a proxy for defining what's legit and what's not.
And while it ultimately is up to end-users -- you know, advertisers, agencies, publishers, and yes, even consumers -- to determine what to do with that data, thanks to NewsGuard, we now have a denominator to work with.
And when it comes to fake COVID-19 news, we now know what it is: 519.
Of the 6,730 news and/or information publishing domains rated by NewsGuard to date, it has found that 519 of them publish "misinformation" about COVID-19.
In other words, about 7.7% of all publishers in NewsGuard's universe are publishing harmful content that is misinforming people -- and communities -- about a crucial public health problem that in one way or another, affects all of us.
The analysis, which NewsGuard released this morning, finds the disinformation concentrates around 50 specific hoaxes related to vaccines, leading many readers to either avoid getting vaccinated, or to take alternatives that might actually be harmful or life-threatening to them.
On a meta scale, the bigger problem is that until a sufficient percentage of the population gets vaccinated, we may never be able to tamp down on the spread of COVID-19, or control its mutation into even more virulent forms.
I can't even fathom what the motivation is for spreading that kind of misinformation. And while the obvious goals seem political, monetary or just plain idiocracatic, it feels like a coordinated effort by some really bad actors working behind the scenes to wreak havoc on a global scale.
But I'm a journalist and I've been trained to be skeptical.
What I don't understand is what the motivation is for some actors standing blatantly in front of this harmful content. You know, advertisers.
“One of the unsolved mysteries of the COVID-19 infodemic is how there could be so much misinformation being spread so widely, contributing to vaccine hesitancy and costing lives,” NewsGuard's Crovitz says in a statement announcing its latest findings."
He also singles out a culprit that has been -- wittingly or unwittingly -- underwriting its spread:
"NewsGuard has determined that programmatic advertising is unintentionally funding hundreds of websites publishing falsehoods about the virus and its vaccines. Advertisers have no idea that their ads are ending up on these websites. Many advertisers tell us they thought their traditional brand-safety providers offered this protection, but they don’t; they protect against ads on pornography sites through artificial intelligence, but it takes trained analysts using fully disclosed criteria to tell the difference between generally trustworthy sites and the increasing number of sites profiting by peddling life-threatening hoaxes to families around the world.”
At a time when marketers have elevated brand "safety" and "purpose" to an almost religious scale, it seems unimaginable that they would be backing something that would cause so much harm, but now there's some data science to prove it.