Jessica Rovello is CEO/co-founder of Arkadium, a provider of interactive content for publishers that attempts to engage audiences and keep them on-site longer. The company counts The Washington Post Co., CNN, USA Today, Hearst, and the Los Angeles Times among the 450 publisher clients using its technology to boost on-site audience engagement and retention.
Rovello recently shared some of her opinions with Real-Time Daily on a controversial topic: fake news.
RTD: You say the industry will “take on” fake news—how?
Rovello: Fake news has always been a problem in the digital media era. Traditionally, however, it lived on the fringes of the long-tail Web. Unfortunately, that changed in 2016 when fake election news stories actually outperformed real election news stories across Facebook and Google. As fake news has become mainstream, curbing its spread will be one of the media industry’s biggest challenges in 2017.
It’s up to publishers to take an active role here. As a first step, they need to re-evaluate partnerships with content recommendation services. As publisher revenue has flattened, more outlets have turned to content recommendation platforms, like Taboola and Outbrain. More than 80% of today’s top 50 news publishers use these services, according to ChangeAdvertising.org.
Unfortunately, at least 30% of the content recommended is either misleading or fake. Publishers can help limit the scale of fake content by demanding stricter guidelines on the types of stories promoted on their pages.
Fake news is problematic for everyone. We have access to more information than ever. We have to sort through the content that’s truthful. It’s not a publisher issue or an ad-tech issue:it’s a democratic issue, in my opinion. A lot of people are fooled into thinking that the snappy headlines are real news stories.
RTD: Is fake news just a publisher problem?
Rovello: It’s not. Change needs to come from the advertiser side as well. The digital ad ecosystem has evolved into an almost fully automated process. Most ads are algorithmically served across thousands of sites, with little human curation to ensure that all publishers are legitimate. This enables creators of fake news content to know that ads will be blindly displayed on their properties in order to remain viable.
RTD: You’ve said that publishers will take on the issue of fake news with stricter guidelines on companies like Taboola and Outbrain. What do you mean?
Rovello: When a publisher signs up for a relationship with a Taboola or an Outbrain, it has editorial control over what will show up in those content recommendation units. Publishers will take a more restrictive look at what is showing up in those content recommendation engines. That’s already happening.
This will mean a squeeze on their business; they’re in a difficult position. A publisher needs the control to get rid of fake content on their sites. The truth is that the people paying the highest amount for the clicks on this type of content, are the ones publishing the fake news. There’s a reason why when you look at those content recommendations, you’re seeing re-circulated articles. They’re being used to generate revenue and to recommend another page on a publisher’s site. Publishers have realized that readers have caught on.
RTD:You’ve said that Facebook and Google will take on fake news by using more human curation and judgement. What do you mean?
Rovello: Facebook and Google have already started to take steps to prevent fake news. They’ve said they’ll fact-check and do human curation. It’s a great first step. It may happen by bringing on human editors or working with third parties. Facebook is working with the Poynter Institute to corroborate sources.
They also could whitelist and blacklist. For example, they could whitelist credible sources like The New York Times. They could also blacklist content creators that are suspect. There’s a combination of both whitelisting and blacklisting that could occur.
There may be emerging news outlets that are doing credible journalism with human curation, and they will need to be identified. Facebook can use a combination of algorithms and human curation to determine whether outlets are doing legitimate news or trying to profit from fake news.
Both Facebook and Google have ad products that are used throughout the Web. They could tighten their restriction on the types of sites that have access to their ad products.
If the content creators can’t make money from fake news stories, they won’t be incentivized. Blocking fake news will need more resources. Human curation is central to evaluating news content; it can’t be an automated process. Automation has only empowered the problem. In 2017, expect more ad tech platforms to build their own editorial divisions with dedicated editorial directors to take on fake news.
RTD: You believe that fake news will drive millennials back into the arms of legacy news publishers. That’s interesting — how so?
Rovello: Millennials are increasingly skeptical of traditional news organizations. Six years ago, according to Pew Research Center, 40% of millennials said that news media ultimately had a positive impact on U.S. society. Fast forward, and Pew finds just 27% describing the impact as positive. As millennial cynicism about traditional news organizations has grown, it’s no coincidence that fake news has exploded as audiences seek out alternative media sources.
Millennials are likely turn back to traditional news and legacy publishers if the fake news phenomenon continues. This is because, as a group, millennials value authenticity. In fact, 43% of millennials, according to data from Elite Daily, rank authenticity above all when consuming news stories. Fake news content obviously doesn’t measure up. While negative perceptions of traditional news media have opened the door for fact-free content to spread, millennial awareness of the problem will only make legacy media more attractive.
With the election cycle, millennials saw firsthand that fake news could impact their thinking. They’ve grown up with unlimited access to information—so what can they believe? To be educated and informed is important to them, and they don’t want to waste their time determining whether news is from a fake news outlet or not.
But the window of opportunity for legacy publishers to get their attention is pretty short. The challenge will be to embrace visual storytelling so publishers can not only get, but hold this generation. They won’t read a 1,500-word story—look at Snapchat and Buzzfeed. The challenge: how do you get creative and unique visual storytelling into legitimate news?