In the ever changing digital world, we are never short of surprises as this lucrative space is the conduit for many interesting ideas and innovations, while also setting the stage for unwanted events such as fraud and brand safety issues. In the most recent years, this space also unwillingly welcomed a newly identified issue: fake news. This became a big topic for our industry, especially after the US Presidential election in 2016. 

However, fake news has been around for a much longer time and it is not exclusive to the digital space. Back in 1835, the New York Sun published articles about giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations, goat-like creatures with blue skin and a temple made of polished sapphire. Readers were told that these were observed on the moon by John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer. In fact – the editor of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke, had made it all up. It was a hoax: fake news.

The IAB SEA+India Brand Safety Working Group discussed the impact of fake news on our industry by looking at both the buy and sell side; especially the impact on mainstream publishers. The discussion covered 3 focus areas; a broad introduction to Fake News, the impact on the advertising industry and which solutions can be applied as preventive measures. 


Fake news tends to be grounded in what are called the 3M’s: Mistrust, Misinformation and Manipulation, coined by Martina Chapman, an independent specialist in media literacy. The purpose is to deliberately deceive readers and influence people’s views on specific topics, services or products. This has most clearly been based around one main agenda: politics. In what is probably the most well-publicised case, teenagers in Macedonia made a killing out of running hundreds of fake news sites and collecting ad revenue. These sites would adopt names sounding similar to reputable news sites, with clickbait titles to attract readers and increase their page views.

Out of many forms that fake news takes, the usual suspects are clickbait, propaganda, satire or parody, misleading news headlines, sloppy journalism and slanted or biased news publications. While ad revenue is one driver for fake news, there are other reasons behind the creation of fake news; political reasons, inciting hatred, revenge, spreading an ideology, unhealthy competition and promoting products. 


The impact on real journalism has been quite evident, as the publishing industry suffered from a drop in revenue. Firstly, fake news is cheaper to generate and exists in large volumes. Secondly, with the majority of campaigns bought on Cost per thousand impressions (CPM) models and fake or sensational news garnering more clicks, more ad revenue is channeled to fake news. A combination of the two makes it challenging for reputable publishers to survive on ad revenue alone, forcing them to turn to a subscription-based revenue model.

On a more positive note, as an unintended side effect fake news has also brought some positive impact to digital publishers who have increased the quality of their journalism, with the belief that “Real Content is still the King”, allowing them to drive subscriptions. In a global study done by Reuters Institute, over a quarter (26%) of surveyees say they have started relying on more reputable sources of news.

Fake news incidents around the world have also brought government attention, leading to tightened regulations – especially when involving local political campaigns


From the digital advertising perspective, it is extremely important for advertisers and agencies to advise their brand clients on the implications of fake news on their campaigns. This is particularly important for ads delivered via programmatic as ads are displayed in real time and the complicated ecosystem is difficult to police and fake inventory to be detected. Programmatic is one of the main avenues for this type of new content getting monetised, since it is a fairly complicated ecosystem and it may be difficult to identify any falsehoods – making it vital for agencies to understand the implications of fake news.

As brands become more cautious of their ad being associated with false content, agencies will be under pressure to demonstrate greater accountability and transparency in terms of media quality. 


There are several solutions to combat fake news – 

  • End users have to exercise discretion in the sources of news they consume from.  There are few organisations globally such as Snopes, Politifact and which focus on raising awareness and education about fake news.
  • Publishers who have steadily turned into the new distribution channel for news organisations, play a very important role in curbing the problem of fake news, refining their algorithms to spot fake and low quality content.  Trending news patterns should also be redefined based on media trust, genuiness and confidence of the readers. 
  • Advertising agencies can start with a simple process such as domain verification process using tools such as Similarweb to identify the quality of the site in terms of user trustworthiness and confidence of the content. 
  • For tech partners, it is important to provide much more clear view between ads and editorial content. 

Combating fake news is everyone’s responsibility in the ecosystem of digital advertising, similar to fraud, brand safety and viewability, which has come to certain maturity by continuous effort via industrial dialogue and forums.


This thought leadership article was written by IAB SEA+India Brand Safety Working Group Member Gavin Floyd, Deputy Head of Advertiser Engagement, AnyMind Group and Prathab Kunasakaran, Head of Supply Strategy, APAC, Xaxis.