Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

“Misinformation publishers are amazingly resilient and adaptable. If users tire of one conspiracy theory or false claim, these operations will simply pivot to a new, more interesting topic.”

After the Electoral College voted this week, finally ending the uncertainty about whether unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud would upset the electoral process, a client asked me a hope-laced question during our weekly check-in call:

Now that the results are final, will we start to see less partisan misinformation? Will the news finally get back to normal?

It was a reasonable, if optimistic, question. The client works for a large programmatic advertising company that processes billions of dollars in ad revenue each year. His company had hired our company, NewsGuard, to provide trust ratings for thousands of news sites to help them place their ads on trustworthy news sites while avoiding misinformation publishers. For most of the year, their team had been on high alert from all the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the U.S. elections.

But despite his optimism, the answer to my client’s question is, unfortunately, an emphatic no. The plague of misinformation is not going to end on its own.

In fact, if we learned one thing from monitoring false news in 2020, it’s that misinformation publishers are amazingly resilient and adaptable. If users tire of one conspiracy theory or false claim, these operations will simply pivot to a new, more interesting topic. When a conspiracy theory or hoax is proven wrong, they’ll simply adapt the claim, even if the new claim contradicts previous ones. And when audiences turn their focus to a specific news topic, like a global pandemic, misinformation publishers follow the clicks.

For example, of the 371 sites the NewsGuard team has so far identified publishing COVID-19 falsehoods in our Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, more than 80 percent had previously been flagged by our team for publishing misinformation about other topics unrelated to the pandemic. The publishers who claim that 5G cell phone technology causes COVID-19 or that garlic infusions can cure it were the same bad actors that previously claimed that 5G causes cancer and that apricot seeds can cure it.

The tactics weren’t new. The falsehoods themselves were barely new. The only thing that had changed was the topic.

As readers became less interested in COVID-19 conspiracies, many of the same sites pivoted to election-related misinformation. More than 60 percent of the sites we found publishing voting and election falsehoods had published COVID-19 falsehoods earlier this year. And as vaccinations begin, many of those sites will soon pivot toward anti-vaccine misinformation. Even the QAnon conspiracy theory, which revolved around U.S. government agencies, spread to Europe this year, morphing to fit the local political and cultural landscape in different countries.

Put simply, we can’t expect the end of COVID-19 or the election season to put an end to misinformation. Instead, combating it will require a concerted effort from a wide range of stakeholders in this coming year.

First, it will require advertisers, ad exchanges, and agencies to take action. We know that most misinformation publishers generate revenue through programmatic advertising, including ads from large, trusted brands. For example, Geico, PayPal, and Best Buy were among the brands that sent an estimated $5 million in advertising revenue to Russian propaganda sites over a six-month period earlier this year.

NewsGuard has been working with the advertising industry to make our apolitical, transparent trust ratings for news sites available to advertisers on large ad exchanges like MediaMath, Amobee, Basis by Centro, and Appnexus, as well as through major agencies like IPG Mediabrands. If more brands, agencies, and ad exchanges begin to prioritize misinformation as an element of advertising brand safety, it will shift the unit economics of digital content away from sensational false stories designed to draw clicks, eroding one of the biggest incentives for publishing misinformation.

This would have the important side effect of supporting credible news sources with more ad revenue. One of the clients we work with, a large brand that spends hundreds of millions on advertising each year, expanded the list of domains it advertises on by using our trust ratings, adding 1,267 credible news publishers to its list of allowed domains. These were highly credible sites with engaged local and national audiences — but the advertiser was missing out on them for fear of ending up on misinformation.

Second, combating misinformation will require the platforms to take more responsibility — and provide more transparency — around their efforts to combat misinformation. Despite their many public announcements about efforts to combat misinformation this year, platforms like Facebook continue to fall short. After Facebook said it would place fact-checker warnings on COVID-19 misinformation, our analysts checked and found misinformation “Super-Spreader” accounts with millions of followers spreading myths about the pandemic — and 63 percent of the false posts we found had no fact-check or warning attached, even weeks after publication. If platforms don’t take responsibility on their own, governments may need to compel them to do so.

Finally, making any kind of dent in the spread of misinformation will require all of us — from journalists to technologists to average news consumers to parents, teachers, and students — to develop strong digital news and media literacy skills. Before the internet, it was easy to tell which stories to trust; a piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer was easy to distinguish from one in the National Enquirer. In social media feeds, headlines look the same no matter which source they come from, and it requires additional judgment to be able to distinguish between credible and unreliable sources.

At NewsGuard, we’re doing our part to help by providing our browser extension users with detailed trust ratings and warning labels next to links in their social media and search feeds — and by partnering with over 750 libraries worldwide and with education companies like Turnitin to ensure educators and students can use our tools to build digital news literacy skills. In 2021, we hope to see many others join us in these efforts.

We can win the fight against misinformation. In 2021, let’s begin to take the necessary steps — together.

Matt Skibinski is general manager of NewsGuard and reader revenue advisor for the Lenfest Institute.

After the Electoral College voted this week, finally ending the uncertainty about whether unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud would upset the electoral process, a client asked me a hope-laced question during our weekly check-in call:

Now that the results are final, will we start to see less partisan misinformation? Will the news finally get back to normal?

It was a reasonable, if optimistic, question. The client works for a large programmatic advertising company that processes billions of dollars in ad revenue each year. His company had hired our company, NewsGuard, to provide trust ratings for thousands of news sites to help them place their ads on trustworthy news sites while avoiding misinformation publishers. For most of the year, their team had been on high alert from all the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the U.S. elections.

But despite his optimism, the answer to my client’s question is, unfortunately, an emphatic no. The plague of misinformation is not going to end on its own.

In fact, if we learned one thing from monitoring false news in 2020, it’s that misinformation publishers are amazingly resilient and adaptable. If users tire of one conspiracy theory or false claim, these operations will simply pivot to a new, more interesting topic. When a conspiracy theory or hoax is proven wrong, they’ll simply adapt the claim, even if the new claim contradicts previous ones. And when audiences turn their focus to a specific news topic, like a global pandemic, misinformation publishers follow the clicks.

For example, of the 371 sites the NewsGuard team has so far identified publishing COVID-19 falsehoods in our Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, more than 80 percent had previously been flagged by our team for publishing misinformation about other topics unrelated to the pandemic. The publishers who claim that 5G cell phone technology causes COVID-19 or that garlic infusions can cure it were the same bad actors that previously claimed that 5G causes cancer and that apricot seeds can cure it.

The tactics weren’t new. The falsehoods themselves were barely new. The only thing that had changed was the topic.

As readers became less interested in COVID-19 conspiracies, many of the same sites pivoted to election-related misinformation. More than 60 percent of the sites we found publishing voting and election falsehoods had published COVID-19 falsehoods earlier this year. And as vaccinations begin, many of those sites will soon pivot toward anti-vaccine misinformation. Even the QAnon conspiracy theory, which revolved around U.S. government agencies, spread to Europe this year, morphing to fit the local political and cultural landscape in different countries.

Put simply, we can’t expect the end of COVID-19 or the election season to put an end to misinformation. Instead, combating it will require a concerted effort from a wide range of stakeholders in this coming year.

First, it will require advertisers, ad exchanges, and agencies to take action. We know that most misinformation publishers generate revenue through programmatic advertising, including ads from large, trusted brands. For example, Geico, PayPal, and Best Buy were among the brands that sent an estimated $5 million in advertising revenue to Russian propaganda sites over a six-month period earlier this year.

NewsGuard has been working with the advertising industry to make our apolitical, transparent trust ratings for news sites available to advertisers on large ad exchanges like MediaMath, Amobee, Basis by Centro, and Appnexus, as well as through major agencies like IPG Mediabrands. If more brands, agencies, and ad exchanges begin to prioritize misinformation as an element of advertising brand safety, it will shift the unit economics of digital content away from sensational false stories designed to draw clicks, eroding one of the biggest incentives for publishing misinformation.

This would have the important side effect of supporting credible news sources with more ad revenue. One of the clients we work with, a large brand that spends hundreds of millions on advertising each year, expanded the list of domains it advertises on by using our trust ratings, adding 1,267 credible news publishers to its list of allowed domains. These were highly credible sites with engaged local and national audiences — but the advertiser was missing out on them for fear of ending up on misinformation.

Second, combating misinformation will require the platforms to take more responsibility — and provide more transparency — around their efforts to combat misinformation. Despite their many public announcements about efforts to combat misinformation this year, platforms like Facebook continue to fall short. After Facebook said it would place fact-checker warnings on COVID-19 misinformation, our analysts checked and found misinformation “Super-Spreader” accounts with millions of followers spreading myths about the pandemic — and 63 percent of the false posts we found had no fact-check or warning attached, even weeks after publication. If platforms don’t take responsibility on their own, governments may need to compel them to do so.

Finally, making any kind of dent in the spread of misinformation will require all of us — from journalists to technologists to average news consumers to parents, teachers, and students — to develop strong digital news and media literacy skills. Before the internet, it was easy to tell which stories to trust; a piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer was easy to distinguish from one in the National Enquirer. In social media feeds, headlines look the same no matter which source they come from, and it requires additional judgment to be able to distinguish between credible and unreliable sources.

At NewsGuard, we’re doing our part to help by providing our browser extension users with detailed trust ratings and warning labels next to links in their social media and search feeds — and by partnering with over 750 libraries worldwide and with education companies like Turnitin to ensure educators and students can use our tools to build digital news literacy skills. In 2021, we hope to see many others join us in these efforts.

We can win the fight against misinformation. In 2021, let’s begin to take the necessary steps — together.

Matt Skibinski is general manager of NewsGuard and reader revenue advisor for the Lenfest Institute.

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