Fake news and tightening the brand safety belt

Jon Stubley talks fake news content and other brand safety threats, and certain measures brands are taking to combat them.


Last month, Group M’s senior director of brand safety and digital risk EMEA told the UK Government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that a legal definition of fake news is required to help block adverts appearing on sites which publish questionable content.

This, she believes, will help advertisers identify the sites and cut off the revenue they receive from brands that unwittingly place ads on their sites (most of the fake news created during the 2016 election was done so to make money rather than for political reasons – the most famous example of which was the pro-Trump news generated by teenagers in the Macedonian village of Veles).

Fake news is one of the more recent concerns for brands to consider when it comes to brand safety. Indeed, up until a few years ago, brand safety was rarely discussed as a concern at all. Fast forward to the present day, however, and terrorist violence, social media outage, partisan politics (along with fake news) have joined the well-known untouchables of drugs, sex and violence – with a number of high profile instances of brand safety breaches in 2017 leading to widespread digital jitters.


What is the extent of the issue?

When brands are damaged everyone in the advertising ecosystem suffers. That is why my own company recently conducted a survey in the US with Custom, Digiday Media’s creative content agency, to understand more about the extent of the issue, how these issues occur and identify ways to limit brand safety exposure. The survey found that a significant 75% of brands reported at least one brand-unsafe exposure in the past year; with 10% reporting ‘regular’ exposure.

When asked about the actual issues encountered, fake news shared equal billing – along with disaster/tragedy and divisive politics.

Given the number of brands affected, we were surprised to find out that few brands are taking serious action to reduce their exposure to risk. Although 70% of respondents said they’re taking brand safety seriously or very seriously, only 26% of brands have started employing solutions within the last two years and 15% don’t use any at all.

However, the brands that are taking measures are often adopting multiple methods of preventative and (post crisis) corrective measures as follows:

  • Keyword detection: employed as a preventative measure by 53% of brands and agencies, it allows advertisers to filter out content they don’t want to associate with at the category and article level. Airlines, for example, don’t want their ads next to breaking news about a plane crash.
  • Blacklists: as a preventative measure, blacklisting is used by 50% of respondents, but once a crisis occurs it hits number one. Blacklists exclude websites based on the content they distribute. This year, AppNexus and others made news when they opted to pro-actively blacklist sites like Breitbart in an effort to calm advertisers’ nerves.
  • Whitelists: about 35% of brands and agencies use this as a preventative measure, while 24% use it as a corrective measure. In a supply chain where a brand’s ads could show up on hundreds and thousands of unknown sites, whitelisting is an effort to pre-approve partners they trust
    to keep them next to brand safe content.
  • Direct relationships with publishers: 43% of respondents bought ad space direct from a publisher as a preventative measure, and 35% as a corrective measure.
  • Image recognition technology: relatively few brands and agencies are using image recognition technology — an AI-backed tech that uses neural networks to identify and sort imagery to screen for brand unsafe pictures. 15% use computer vision to scan before placement, while 11%
    employ it as corrective technology (which is surprising given 44% of brands and agencies grapple with brand unsafe imagery, while 32% grapple with brand unsafe video).
  • Third party solutions: 37% of respondents say they’re employing such a company as a preventative tactic. When scrambling after a crisis, only 26% look to such partners to shore up their defences.


What is clear is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the brand safety crisis. Rather, brands need to focus on both prevention – and at least reduction of risk – as well as have a plan in place if exposure occurs. And as the recent addition of fake news to brand safety concerns proves, these plans must be agile enough to quickly deal with new and emerging threats.


Jon Stubley is managing director ANZ at GumGum.



Image copyright: skdesign / 123RF Stock Photo