After years of pressure and uncertainty, stakeholders across the digital ad ecosystem are putting their best foot forward to tackle inflammatory rhetoric, misinformation and disinformation, says Tanzil Bukhari, Managing Director, EMEA, DoubleVerify.

Spurred by waves of false information surrounding such high-profile events as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and the US Capitol violence, the need for brand safety and suitability – especially on emerging platforms – is greater than ever.

Each of these content types has its subtleties. Inflammatory rhetoric includes incitement to political violence and blatant, extreme opinion statements in content positioned as fact-based. Misinformation refers to communication of unreliable information on issues of importance, while disinformation is the same, but with such communication undertaken with a deliberate intent to mislead.

Uniformly, though, each presents a danger to brands. It’s unlikely you’ll find anyone in the ad industry that doesn’t view its rise as a serious problem – from affecting a brand’s reputation to consumers potentially avoiding purchasing from that brand altogether if their ads were found alongside such content. For example, DoubleVerify’s research surveying over 10,000 respondents found 55% of global consumers are less likely to purchase from a brand that advertised alongside fake news content1. But what else can, and is, being done to combat it?

Can misinformation be tackled?

With over 4.2 billion vaccine doses given worldwide, including over 340 million doses in the US2 and 85 million in the UK3,  there is hope for an end to the pandemic-induced disruption. However, this welcome news is being undermined by groups peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories, often for their own profit, and at serious cost to public health.4

While the largest social media platforms have undertaken a number of important steps to stem the flow of Covid-related misinformation, there remain unchecked areas online in which conspiracies, mistruths, and inflammatory content proliferate. For example, there was a 400% spike in inflammatory news stories with “coronavirus vaccine” related keywords in the URL over the three weeks following the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine announcement, compared with the month preceding the news.5 Similarly, after extreme weather linked to climate change caused power cuts in Texas, the conspiracy theory website Infowars published a story falsely blaming President Joe Biden which was shared over 70,000 times.6 As news cycles continue to evolve, this underlines a need for robust techniques and controls within the ad ecosystem to combat false information.

Without strict controls, advertisers may unwittingly fund misinformation. However, through support of trusted publishers, more sophisticated controls, and due diligence, brands can cut funding of false news, and support accurate, well-researched reporting.

While this is important to our society, it also benefits brands directly. The vast majority (82%) of consumers say it’s a brand’s responsibility to make sure their ads appear in appropriate environments. If brands fail to do so, and appear alongside questionable content, two thirds of consumers may stop using a brand’s product after a brand suitability incident.7

Building accountability and transparency through industry collaboration

While actions are being taken to curb the spread of disinformation – for example the UK Government’s and the World Health Organization’s joint “Stop The Spread” campaign to raise awareness of the risks of false information regarding the pandemic8 – more needs to be done. The solution starts with transparency and alignment.

Through greater collaboration between different stakeholders, the ad ecosystem can hold itself to account and work together to better understand how disinformation spreads. The good news is that progress is being made. In the last two years, several major new initiatives in the ad tech world have created a more transparent, measurable and accountable ecosystem. 

For example, the Brand Safety Floor and Brand Suitability Framework advanced by the 4A’s Advertising Protection Bureau (APB) and the World Federation of Advertisers’ (WFA) Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) has created a set of shared standards that help the industry implement brand suitability guidelines. DoubleVerify has worked to align its Brand Safety and Suitability9 settings with these standards, making it possible for advertisers, publishers, and platforms, to speak a common, consistent language on brand safety.

Alongside creating alignment on brand safety and suitability through shared standards, advertisers need tools to balance protection and reach audiences at scale. Accurate content segmentation is at the core of this, enabled by AI-driven semantic science which can understand the context of vast quantities of content being created in real-time, bracketing it into intuitive categories.

By placing content into categories such as ‘Inflammatory Politics and News’ or ‘Hate Speech’, brands can separate inflammatory content from legitimate and trusted news. This means that for fast-moving news events like those relating to social justice issues, brands can support quality journalism while balancing protection and scale of their campaigns.

More broadly, brands can use categories to decide which topics they would like their ads to appear alongside, reaching audiences safely by recognising nuances in language. For example, content categorisation ensures a sports brand wouldn’t appear alongside content in which the word “shot” has negative, violent connotations but does appear alongside relevant content mentioning “shot” in the context of goal “shot”.  Meanwhile, platforms or publishers can use categories to identify and act against misinformation. A win-win!

Turning the tide on false news

The era of false information is far from over, but with renewed attention from stakeholders across the ad sector, the tide can begin to turn. With billions of pieces of content being created digitally each day, no single platform, advertiser, publisher, or technology can win this battle alone.

The path ahead must be defined by greater collaboration between stakeholders in the industry, focused on building a standardised and transparent ecosystem with accountability at all levels.