Misinformation is a Drag and a Threat to Digital Media

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Addressing the financial incentives behind misinformation is crucial to reducing its prevalence online.

As much as we hate to admit, misinformation is a plague online. Any social media blogger or user can post a screenshot or salacious news without a fact check, and audiences will run with it. Now, with AI deep fakes becoming even more convincing, this problem is bound to get worse. 

Unfortunately, this has created a space for people to monetize and grow audiences based on the misfortune of others. For instance, Eric Posey, an Idaho drag performer who goes by the stage name Mona Liza Million, was paraded across alt-right media after an edited video made it seem like he was exposing his genitals at a drag show where kids were present. 

The video first started circulating after right-wing blogger Summer Bushnell posted a doctored version of Posey’s performance that blurred out his shorts to make it appear as if he was exposing himself to the crowd. With the rising rhetoric from the far right accusing drag queens of grooming kids at drag performances, this video made waves in right-wing media circles and thus defamed Posey’s characters. 

At the end of last month, the Kootenai County District Court jury unanimously found that Summer Bushnell defamed Posey and rewarded him with a $1.1 million settlement. While this was a clear victory for Posey, he still had to endure months of lies after Bushnell shared the doctored video that could have easily ruined his life. After Bushnell posted her edited version of the video in connection to the arrest of 31 white supremacists who were planning to protest the pride event Posey performed at, the video garnered thousands of views, national news coverage, and a police investigation. 

See how easily misinformation spreads? As ad ops and rev ops professionals who help create digital campaigns and generate revenue for your brands, it’s important that we keep a watchful eye on the spread of misinformation. 

The Plague of Online MisInformation and Advertising’s Contribution 

According to research from Nature, financial incentives often drive the production of misinformation. Websites that spread misinformation, posing as legitimate news outlets, remain prevalent due to the economic benefits.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a misinformation site operator admitted that income was their primary motivation. Media reports indicate that companies and digital platforms inadvertently support misinformation sites through advertising. Digital platforms manage most online display advertising, automatically placing ads on numerous websites, including those spreading misinformation. An industry estimate reveals that for every $2.16 spent on legitimate newspapers, $1 goes to misinformation sites.

Chris Kenna, CEO North America & LATAM BA Diversity Media Inc agrees that there are countless examples of publishers and tech platforms monetizing misinformation. 

“Big brands have found themselves funding trolling, hate speech, racism and misinformation about climate change, elections, the pandemic and the current conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza to name but a few,” said Kenna. 

As seen through Eric Posey’s unfortunate situation, the spread and funding of misinformation can negatively impact people’s lives. Kenna points out that, according to a global UN staff survey, 80% of respondents said harmful information endangers them and the communities they serve. He adds that it’s time that the advertising and media industries ensured that human rights, privacy and safety were at the center of how we run campaigns and the partners that we choose to invest in.  

Efforts to combat online misinformation have mainly focused on reducing demand through fact-checking, crowd-sourced labels, and nudging users toward accurate content. However, addressing the financial incentives behind misinformation is crucial. Experts proposed policies to deter platforms from revenue models that support harmful content. 

Some digital platforms have tried to cut advertising revenue to misinformation sites, yet ads from reputable companies still appear on these sites, funding them. 

How to Regulate and Stop the Spread of Online Misinformation

To effectively combat the spread of online misinformation, it is crucial to address the financial underpinnings that allow these sites to thrive. A significant portion of misinformation websites’ revenue comes from digital advertising, where automated systems place ads across numerous sites without thoroughly vetting the content. This means that well-meaning companies with substantial advertising budgets may inadvertently fund misinformation by having their ads appear on these dubious sites. 

To combat this, Devon Johnson, Co-founder of BOMESI, warns that truth and the active pursuit of it must always be protected. 

“Brands and agencies must take a stand and not just buy ads for clicks and instead shift budgets and support to platforms that are honest, trustworthy and clean,” said Johnson. “Anything else is irresponsible and lazy.” 

Furthermore, digital ad platforms must enhance transparency, allowing advertisers to see where sites place their ads. This would enable companies to make informed decisions, avoiding ad placements on misinformation sites and, consequently, cutting off a major revenue source for these sites.

At BOMESI, Johnson does not partner with platforms that don’t align with the core principle of truth. That is through responsible and honest storytelling. It’s more important for him to align with the right side of history instead of lining his pockets.  

Another effective strategy is increasing consumer transparency about which companies are financing misinformation, knowingly or unknowingly. If consumers know a company’s involvement in funding misinformation, they can boycott these companies, creating a financial incentive for companies to be more vigilant about their ad placements. 

This dual approach of increasing transparency for both advertisers and consumers can significantly reduce the funding available to misinformation sites. By making it easier for advertisers to avoid dubious sites and for consumers to identify and boycott companies that support misinformation, we can work towards a more reliable and truthful online information ecosystem.