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April 2022 RR blog edit 01

Tackling misinformation is critical to keep society and journalism healthy

Published: 12 Apr 2022

The challenging tide of digital misinformation doesn’t just flow one way. As well as causing real-world consequences, it can also be driven by global events. Currently, this dual influence is being powerfully highlighted by the situation in Ukraine — with the huge uptick in misinformation adding greater confusion to an already devastating conflict.

Over recent years, I’ve watched with concern as the correlation between dubious and polarising online media and rising offline impact has grown. But although misinformation issues are increasing and can feel overwhelming at times, we can’t excuse them as too big to tackle. As emphasised in previous AOP CRUNCH sessions, the ecosystem has a significant responsibility to address harmful content and curb its reach.

Championing and upholding truth is critical, now more than ever. On the advertiser side, that includes boosting support for ethical — and independent – media. For publishers, maintaining the highest bar of quality, balance and accuracy is key to deliver the trustworthy journalism needed for sustaining a healthy and informed society. Among all players, there is also the vital requirement to work together on ensuring the facts are heard and counter fakery.

Online ingenuity: when ads become journalism

It goes without saying that these are exceptional times. From a media specific standpoint, the main difficulties for those working amid the Ukraine conflict are centred on making content accessible and presenting different perspectives. Increasing censorship of news outlets has made it harder to share unbiased journalism in Russia, but I’m heartened by the various stories of innovators finding ways to keep independent reporting going and bring stories to audiences, such as turning ads into news.

Take the Ukraine-based volunteer group, comprised of digital experts from more than 50 companies, including the IAB and ad platforms such as MGID, who have pooled resources to counter misinformation as an example. Delivered across sites and social media platforms, its ads have brought accurate updates about the situation to audiences in Russia and Belarus. And the collective isn’t alone. Other determined industry leaders such as digital strategist Rob Blackie have raised funds for further campaigns sharing independent news updates and articles using ads; with 1.7 million impressions served and counting.

Alternative inroads are critical when not only is the availability of objective news reduced, but wider digital audiences are also often gravitating towards media that reinforces their existing views, amplifying the impact of misleading and fake articles. The risk this poses of creating loops where narrow perception dominates has proved a major discussion topic across AOP CRUNCH events and steering groups, alongside the importance of re-assessing production approaches.

Publishers must offer content that covers diverse opinions side-by-side: breaking the cycle of shuttered thinking and enabling audiences to make informed decisions about what is true, or not.

Keeping keyword blocking in check

Staying with advertising efforts, recent weeks have seen buyers wielding their budgets for good; working to the maxim that ad spend may not dictate the media agenda, but it does help bolster— or diminish — outlet visibility. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the likes of WPP have moved to cut spending that could support misinformation and propaganda in Russia; with investment in the market already down by almost half. At the same time, however, another less positive trend has gained pace.

Growth in keyword blocking around terms related to the war has meant ad spend is steering away from ethical publishers providing much-needed information, especially news sites. Leading forces such as The Financial Times have confirmed advertisers are pausing their activity, while other publishers have noted a new list of words appearing on block lists: including terms such as "Vladimir Putin," "NATO," and simply “war”.

Echoing past hurdles with pandemic coverage, this trend puts publishers in a tough position. While the urge to avoid reputational harm is understandable, diverting spend from credible stories about Ukraine has sizeable negative effects. In addition to restricting yield now, this shift could hamper long-term funding for news publishers, as well as sites offering news within broader portfolios, including sports, beauty, and lifestyle content.

So far, our latest DPRI data indicates continued buoyancy; I’m pleased to say that in Q4 2021, AOP members showed impressive growth, exceeding revenue levels by 13.4%, compared to Q4 2020. However, safeguarding future media health will call for action and the implications of global conflict have yet to be seen in these figures. Collaboration between the sell and buy side will be paramount to improve understanding around the drawbacks of keyword blocking and the varied reward of placing ads on premium, trusted sites.

Dialling up the education drive

In periods of uncertainty, consumers naturally seek knowledge. So, it was no surprise to me that users have spent as much as 43% more time with articles on the Ukraine-Russia conflict than other stories lately. Such leaps in dwell time underscore the hunger for dependable news that publishers need to both meet and spotlight.

Part of the onus for driving better recognition about the advantages of quality ad placements lies with content creators. Or in other words, publishers need to step up education for buyers. Enhancing awareness across advertisers eager to forge deeper connections will benefit everyone; allowing brands to extend the reach and increasing revenue needed to deliver the credible content audiences want and need to remain properly informed.

Similarly, publishers have the scope to achieve a firmer grip on monetisation. Many are effectively using direct deals as means of easing concerns about placement suitability without keywords; to the point 51% of publishers see direct deals as having the most potential for revenue growth compared to private and open marketplaces. Additionally, the steady rise in other revenue sources such as subscriptions illustrates that diversification can allow publishers to steady their bottom line and power production with more than just ads.

Ultimately, the chief role publishers can play in fighting misinformation is rooted in our core purpose: generating enriching, engaging, and genuinely informative content. But this isn’t, however, where responsibility ends. Content producers have a duty to identify ways they can help keep the ecosystem healthy, both as individual forces and in collaboration with other members of the digital space. On an independent basis, this includes promoting reliable media by taking part in initiatives such as the AOP’s Link Attribution Protocol, which both ensures fair citation and better reach for stories created by responsible outlets. Meanwhile, collaborating with advertisers striving to create new avenues of distribution will allow publishers to encourage, and increase, understanding around ethical spending. The combination of these approaches will ultimately help sustain great journalism and preserve online truth.