Tuesday 19 January 2021 6:00 am

Branded: How firms can avoid being marked by fake news controversy

Tanzil Bukhari is Managing Director, EMEA, at DoubleVerify

Joe Biden is heading to the White House. Vaccines are being rolled out. The world is ready to start moving forward after a fractious year. 

Given the turbulence of the last 12 months, building brand reputation hasn’t always been a priority. In the years ahead, businesses will not only be looking to start afresh, but reset and rebuild mindshare. 

Yet around the world, and particularly in the UK, the news cycle turmoil isn’t over. 

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Both COVID-19 and Brexit continue to dominate—and while a trade deal has been agreed, and vaccines approved, the ramifications of each are far from over.

What’s more, after 2020, we know that lurking behind these big stories is an entire ecosystem of misinformation—falsehoods shared intentionally to mislead.

However, vast quantities of trusted, brand-safe content also feature vital discussion and analysis of Brexit and the pandemic.

As businesses look to level-up and protect their brands, how can they learn from 2020, navigate misinformation circulating around complex topics and reach audiences at scale via suitable, trusted, content? 

Knowing the enemy: recognising the threat of misinformation 

In the past year, the dangers of misinformation have continued to crystallise.

The uncertainty and legitimate policy questions regarding COVID-19 have been exploited by bad actors spreading misinformation. Globally, PwC suggests that false information has been spread through rogue media outlets broadcasting conspiracy-themed content, the use of bot accounts, and phishing campaigns. 

In the UK, the dangers of such misinformation are pronounced. Both COVID-19 and 5G conspiracies led to several examples of telecommunications infrastructure being attacked. 

In further testament to the spread of disinformation in the U.K., some surveys even suggest worrying minority believe the QAnon conspiracy theory—claiming there is an anti-Trump deep-state plot—and a similar number believe that COVID-19 is part of an intentional “depopulation plan”.

In response to the spread of disinformation, researchers, publishers and social media platforms ramped up efforts to tackle misleading content. This response included Twitter’s marking of misleading tweets during the U.S. election, while more recently Facebook accelerated plans to ban misinformation regarding vaccines and boosted trusted publisher partnerships.

However, brands have a stake in this challenge too. 

Our research highlights that the majority of consumers are less likely to purchase from a brand that appears alongside fake news. 

In the year ahead, navigating fake news will become even more important. How can brands balance safety with reaching audiences and supporting trusted publishers? Moreover, how can brands limit the financial incentives for the production of misleading content and support a healthy information ecosystem?  

Contentious issues and content classification

Often, to keep their ads away from certain topics, brands will use keyword lists or site and app inclusion and exclusion lists in order to control where their ads appear. 

While this approach can be useful, for example for brands particularly sensitive to political news, it’s only one part of the required toolbox. For most, simply blocking a topic like “Brexit” isn’t the answer.

For such a complex subject, without a more nuanced approach, brands can unintentionally block suitable, trusted content and further, limit the potential scale of their campaigns. 

Human expertise, in combination with semantic classification technology, which leverages ontology and machine learning to ensure classifications represent the actual content and context of a page, offers a much more nuanced approach. For example, it can classify content by broad categories like “news”, but also more targeted categories like “Inflammatory Politics and News”. 

Using a category like “Inflammatory Politics and News” built on this technology means brands can avoid their ads appearing alongside disinformation, misinformation, propaganda or extremist views. Meanwhile, legitimate, trusted news (where research shows consumers view brand ads favourably) can remain part of an advertiser’s media plan. 

In short, brands can tailor their approach to changing needs, avoid controversial content that’s not suitable or safe, while still scaling to reach the right audiences. 

Expecting the unexpected 

While it wasn’t an easy year for businesses and marketers, there’s a lot to be learnt from 2020.  

The need to support trusted news sources has only become more pronounced as the dangers of misinformation—both to brands and society at large—became clear. 

As conversations around Brexit’s ramifications and vaccine roll-outs continue, misinformation will circulate. Brands can’t afford to ignore the issue, and for the majority, avoiding all news or political content will not only limit scale, but also harm trusted news outlets.

With an awareness of both the dangers of fake news and the value consumers place on trustworthy publishers, brands can use technology to build safety into their campaigns. By doing so, advertisers can be ready for whatever 2021’s news cycles have in store—both in terms of the fall-out of Brexit and the pandemic, and the surprises that lie beyond. 

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