At the Internet Advertising Bureau's (IAB) 2017 Annual Leadership Meeting yesterday, President Randall Rothenberg gave an impassioned speech asking colleagues to take "civic responsibility for our effect on the world" and find ways to combat the spread of fake news.
He stressed that he was very proud of the achievements of the IAB community, both in terms of helping the spread of information and communication; as well as creating "out of bits and bytes, billions of dollars of value and millions of jobs..., flowing from boomtowns like Palo Alto and Seattle into mom and pop enterprises in small hamlets on every continent."
But he also said they had to accept that the same networks and technologies were enabling the dissemination of falsehoods. He described the industry as being at the "center of an epochal change" and that the "same paths the curious can trek to satisfy their hunger for knowledge can also be littered deliberately with ripe falsehoods, ready to be plucked by -- and to poison -- the guileless."
According to Rothenberg, the intertwined, complex value-chain that defines the media industry meant that every action, development and investment made in any aspect of the business will affect the entire industry and people around the world. And while every company can't predict or be held accountable for these consequences, IAB members must take responsibility for addressing the problems when they were recognized.
"When all information becomes suspect -- when itís not just an ad impression that may be fraudulent, but the data, news, and science that undergird society itself -- then we must take civic responsibility for our effect on the world," he said.
He suggested two simple steps towards this goal. Firstly, follow industry standards. He blamed "this every-man-woman-and-company for itself nonsense" for putting the industry on "the slippery slope to relativism that leads directly to fake news."
Secondly, he asked each member company to go through a list of their customers and suppliers, identifying what they actually do. If the company then finds their customers or partners are "engaged in child porn or distributing pirated movies or generating neo-Nazi propaganda, or anything else you wouldnít want your parents, spouses, neighbors, or children to know about, then stop doing business with them."
In fact, many media organizations have already been working on new solutions to halt the spread of fake news, but it remains unclear that the spread of lies can be stopped in a hyper-connected world.
The BBC is a good example, announcing yesterday that it would be developing an expanded, permanent team for its Reality Check service. Originally launched last year as a fact-checking service during the Brexit referendum, the team will focus on examining the facts and claims behind a story to determine whether or not it is true. The feature will run in a variety of formats across TV, radio and online.
Various others are also exploring new initiatives to manage fake news. For example, CNN Money is looking for a new editor to take on the role of fact checker and expose fake news.
And Google's AdSense misrepresentation policy (launched in November 2016) targets "website owners misrepresenting who they are and that deceive people with their content." In the last two months of the year, Google has reviewed 550 sites that it thought may be misrepresenting content to users, including those impersonating news organizations. The company took action against 340 and permanently excluded nearly 200 publishers from the Google Ad network. This is certainly creditable, but the sites Google is targeting are more the "miracle weight loss cure" type, as opposed to providers of fake political news.
After being criticized during the US presidential elections, Facebook has partnered with the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). Users (in some countries) can flag stories they think are deliberately false and IFCN checkers will then review the story and flag them if they turn out to be false. This "flag" stays with the story so readers know itís facts are disputed, but in addition the Facebook algorithm also ensures it stays low in your newsfeed.
Meanwhile French newspaper Le Monde has developed a browser extension it calls Decodex. When visiting a fake news site, the browser informs readers via a pop-up that this is a fake news site, with more information. But obviously this only works if users download the extension first.
Non-profit organization First Draft is also developing algorithms to identity and flag fake news sites based on how long ago those sites were created. It is working with Google and Facebook to see if it can incorporate code to stop the spread of fake news.
Snapchat has also published a strong policy towards fake news posting new guidelines last week to prevent publishers from linking to websites that could be considered fake news, requiring all content to be fact-checked and accurate.
Even governments in the UK, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic and elsewhere are actively looking for ways to tackle the fake news problem, but it's questionable that politicians have the expertise to keep up with the pace of innovation in the industry.
It's also unclear where the solution lies -- is it with regulation and legal accountability, with algorithms and other technology-based solutions or with economic disincentives pushed by advertisers?
And is it even possible to stop fake news? With so many outlets, social networks and the explosive viral nature of the Internet, how can anything stop people from lying?
The IAB's Rothenberg isn't interested in excuses. In his speech he said, "Any company sitting in this room has the ability to police itself and to actively banish fakery, fraudulence, criminality, and hatred from its midst -- and it is your obligation to do so."
"Don't tell me that it's difficult. Donít tell me that it will take a lot of time. Donít tell me that it's too complex to resolve quickly. In a multidimensional industry that can invest untold billions on driverless cars, Mars missions, Super Bowl ads, next season's prime-time lineup, and the acquisition of hot programmatic startups, surely we can fix fake news first."
ó Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation