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How IT services firms can push back on misinformation

IT services firms have increasingly put marketing dollars into digital advertising. But do they know which websites their ads appear on and, consequently, help fund?

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

In this video, Sobel discusses the prevention of online misinformation and hate speech with Jordan Bitterman, chief marketing officer at New York ad tech company TripleLift. They discuss how media buyers need to become wary of the websites they support with their online advertising dollars. Bitterman points to media practices that need to change.

Transcript follows below.

Dave Sobel: Your PR team did a great job, and the pitch got my attention. So, I'll tell my audience: What interested me here was you've got a passion for managing misinformation and helping sites not promote it. That's a hot button issue that we know from big tech, and we know that a lot of big tech sites are under fire for this. But what's your thinking on the problem and how we should take it on?

Jordan Bitterman: We can also probably talk about fake news and hate speech. They're all kind of slightly different ideas, but they're very much related.

Let's go back a few decades before the internet. If a newspaper or a radio station was pedaling in misinformation, they'd be held accountable by the government or by their audiences. There were defined standards of truth. But today, those lines have been completely blurred. And with the government allowing for more and more self-regulation and with the audiences being increasingly polarized, we see across the board, all the time, these sites now operate out in the open. So, a site can now 'report' on how Bill Gates is injecting people with microchips. And not only does the content stay live, but people embrace it. And there are untold thousands of websites that exist and do this.

The way [these websites] stay in business, in most cases, is through ad revenue. Unfortunately, programmatic ad revenue, which is the part of the business that we operate in, is where they generate most of those dollars. The reason why is because they don't normally hire sales teams. They're not big enough to hire sales teams. So, they tap into what's known as programmatic advertising to help them drive revenue. And it's actually pretty easy to set up and do. So, you can start to generate money as a misinformation site. Obviously, they don't position themselves as a misinformation site, but [they operate] as sites that more or less deliver misinformation.

And most advertisers obviously hate this, because they earmark a percentage of their dollars to be spent in programmatic [advertising]. Then a percentage of that programmatic spend gets spent on these types of sites. Now, it's not a huge amount, as I said before, but it is something. And so, what happens is that consumers and watchdog groups will go to those sites and they'll see [the advertisements] there, and, all of a sudden, now the brand has responsibility in all of that.

So, the responsibility now falls on the media buyer, either in a brand or an agency, to decide what's real news and what's fake news, and that just shouldn't be their job.

Why buyers should care about where they advertise

Sobel: OK. So, that's some fair thinking. You're in the business of helping with buys and helping with people make those decisions. But isn't the incentive to get eyeballs? And isn't any way you can get eyeballs there all a good thing and why this is happening? Because we know outrage can drive attention. So, is the incentive the problem? Why wouldn't the buyer be incentivized to buy?

Bitterman: No, the buyer isn't incentivized, but the seller absolutely is. So, if you've set up a site, and it's all about rage, to your point, you're in the right business right now. This is the right time for your business, because you're in this sort of vacuum in between truth and when we as a society get our act together and decide to stamp that out. But the buyer doesn't necessarily have incentive to do that because, look, we're all over the web as consumers. You and me as audience members, your listeners -- we consume a lot of content every single day. So, there's plenty of what we call eyeballs to go around.

As a brand, you don't want to find yourself advertising in front of the wrong eyeballs. I think to your question, the people who are consuming it might feel OK with that. If the audience is there, they're there for a reason. [But] there are these watchdog groups and other consumers who will go check out to see, 'Oh, so-and-so brand is there. This car company is there. This financial services company.' And that's not a good thing if they know that you're monetizing hate speech.

Sobel: OK. So, let me push on that. I'm going to throw out a premise, and you tell me if I'm right or wrong. So, my basic premise here would be, 'Sure, I get this as a theoretical risk, but I don't necessarily believe that brands or companies are going to pay a long-term price for doing this. I don't think they are.' Am I right? Am I wrong?

Bitterman: Well, we live in a very polarized society. And so, the calculus there may be that certainly you lose $20 here, maybe you make $20 over here. The people who are interested in that content might follow you there, and that's OK. In essence, what brands desperately want to avoid is this idea of negative association or negative press. And very often, what happens is that their brand is found to be running on a site that isn't completely on the up and up. There becomes an outcry over that, and they wind up spending a couple of spins in the news cycle, trying to focus the attention back off of the fact that they were there or that they were monetizing that, as opposed to selling coffee or selling cars.

Sobel: Sure. OK. So, some of your argument is it's a distraction. It's a money loss for this. I guess what I'm looking at is, is there also data from your perspective, or that you've looked into, that shows that by [avoiding] this, you're aligning with a more lucrative buyer?

Bitterman: No. There are tons of data that run through the media industry, so we're never at a loss of having good data to make sure that we're reaching 'men, 25-plus' or people who love working out in gyms. We have all that information. Most of these sites that we're talking about aren't really measured by a lot of those same numbers anyway. So, you don't necessarily even know what you're getting in that. You're just buying efficient inventory, efficient impressions, and you happen to be running and spill some of those impressions on sites that you might not want to be on or are unsavory in some way.

What ad buyers need to do

Sobel: So, one of the things that you mentioned as we were thinking this through and prepping was that buyers, as well as publishers, need to no longer work with sites that promote that misinformation. Is there particular guidance that you're giving to those that are doing ad buys specifically?

Bitterman: What's happened for a long time is there are what's known in our industry as 'inclusion and exclusion lists.' And so back in the day, let's go back 20 years or so, when you would make a buy, you almost always made a buy on exactly the sites you wanted to run on. 'I want to run on AOL [or] Yahoo,' to pick a couple of sites of that day.

Then what happened was the term 'exclusion lists' came up. The idea was, 'I don't want to run on this site. I don't want to run on that site.' Now, a lot of times what those sites were, were straight news sites. It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on. Whether it's The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News or The Wall Street Journal, a lot of those sites made their way onto exclusion lists because the buyer didn't want to run next to news that they couldn't control.

You can run in sports. You can run in entertainment. Yeah, certainly you couldn't control whether the team won or the personality won the award or not, but it was less unsavory or had a lesser chance of being unsavory. You weren't around death and destruction.

That has actually caused problems with the news industry, because what's happened is a lot of news sites have wound up on exclusion lists. And so, when you talk about local newspapers or the websites of local newspapers going out of business, not being able to fund journalism, it's because, in many cases -- this has happened across the board -- those [news organizations] run on exclusion lists.

So, we tell our clients, 'Run on news sites. News sites need us. It's part of the proper functioning of society. And by the way, it turns out it performs pretty well. There's good return on advertising spend on those types of sites. But make sure that you're working with the right SSP' -- we're called an SSP, a supply-side platform -- 'to make sure that you're removing the sites that really do deal in that kind of misinformation and hate speech.'

Sobel: OK. And for my own listeners, of course, I have incredible biases here as a person who does a news show and also sells ads. It would be completely hypocritical of me to say that I don't believe in some of that model. I'm with you on a lot of this.

How channel companies should approach digital advertising

Now, help me make this tangible for smaller companies. So, a lot of the listeners that I have are small to medium-sized businesses that are the kinds that are doing a lot of their buys through, say, Google Ads or Facebook or those kinds of digital ads. What do they need to be thinking about when they're doing the ads? Because to a certain degree, you just put out an ad on Google and then it [goes] to a particular audience and to a particular landing page. But I don't think a lot about where that goes. What do I need to be thinking about if I want to be diligent?

Bitterman: First of all, I would not tell any of your listeners who are in that category not to run on the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. The reason why is because it performs [well] and it's easy. And I don't say that in an uncomplimentary way. It is easy as a smaller business to be able to run on those platforms, and there is a lot of value in the ease. So, what I'm about to say does not detract from that.

But, as a matter of fact, most of the focus around misinformation, hate speech and fake news has been geared, has been directed, toward Google and Facebook and a few other platforms. And with good reason. Let's take a website. I don't even know what website to name, but let's just take a website. Let's call it, 'misinformation.com' -- not that it would ever be called that.

So, running on misinformation.com is the worst thing you can do, because then you're literally funding dollars for what they do. Facebook, for the most part, is not how misinformation.com makes money. Facebook is how misinformation.com drives traffic back to their site. And so, Facebook has not done misinformation any favors, but running on Facebook doesn't mean you're supporting that as a smaller business.

Now, Google has multiple parts of their business. Parts of their business is in driving traffic to misinformation.com. But part of it is another part of Google's business. Obviously, Google is in the cloud world. They're in the search business. They're in YouTube. They're in a lot of different places. But one of the businesses that they're in is monetizing these smaller sites. They're known as what's known as a DSP, a demand-side platform. And so misinformation.com could be, and, in many cases, would be, funded by Google's DSP business. If you're a small business, you're not funding that on the other side of their business, but if you're in the media business or if you're a big brand running on their platform, you do have to be conscious of that.

Sobel: Oh, I see. OK. Gotcha. So, to a certain degree it's about which products you're buying from these advertising platforms to make sure that you're in the right places.

Tools to avoid misinformation news sites

Now, one of the things we talk a lot about in very broad context here is the amplification of these misinformation sites. What are you advising to your ad buyers to make sure that they aren't doing it? Is it exclusion lists? How do you make sure that they are good buyers?

Bitterman: I'll sort of reframe that by saying, 'How do we make sure that they are covered and that they are not being put in a compromising position?' Because that's part of what our role has become.

So, one of the things we've done recently -- and I bring this out to your listeners because it's just an interesting sort of weed that's grown up in our industry -- there's an entity called NewsGuard. And NewsGuard is nothing if not a ranking system for news organizations. And that doesn't mean that they're coming in and saying that this kind of reporting is right or wrong. They don't get into that. It's not a right [wing] versus left [wing] thing. But what they do is they create a ranking system for news organizations, thousands of them, based around misinformation. Do they have a true editorial mission and an editorial desk? Do they issue retractions when they're wrong or when they're called out for potentially being wrong? Things of that nature. And there's a scoring system.

We use that ranking system to go out and proactively remove sites from our platform. And we've actually issued blog posts, and we've talked about this in the trades. We've asked other competitors of ours to do the exact same thing, because, at the end of the day, removing sites for our platform is not a good short-term strategy to make money. It's a better long-term strategy if you believe that it will be good in the long term. But it's not just good long-term for our business. It's good long-term for society.

So, checking out NewsGuard, which any of your audience members could do right now anyhow on their website, is a really interesting way. It's an interesting tool that's popped up in our industry, because we can't be the arbiter all the time. It's impossible for us to do that. What is the difference between real news and fake news? Sometimes you know it when you see it, and other times it's a much more subtle kind of endeavor.

Sobel: It's interesting you bring up NewsGuard because it's actually a tool that I use.

Bitterman: Oh, cool.

Sobel: It's all installed on all my browsers as a consumer of news and as an aggregator of news. One of the things I do, of course, is report on stories and give commentary. I want to make sure that I'm looking at sources that are reputable, that have a particular standard, in order to continue to give good information. So, I'm using it as a consumer.

Changing the tech ad industry

So, my final question -- I always like this, it's a great consultant question, and I freely tell anybody who's listening they can steal this from me -- I keep on my desk a magic wand because -- [shows a Harry Potter-style magic wand]

Bitterman: Is that a Harry Potter [wand]?

Sobel: It is a Harry Potter [wand]. Good eye. So, it's a Harry Potter magic wand. Now the fun thing about the magic wand, of course, is you cast a magic wand and you cast any wish that you'd like. Now, this one is restricted right now to only our industry. It is not as much fun. It cannot kind of give us infinite money, and it cannot give us infinite lives, but it could fix one thing around misinformation. What wish would you cast?

Bitterman: I wish we could combine both the technology that we have right now with the more black-and-white way that we looked at news and truth a few decades ago. And I know you said to confine this to the industry, and I will for the most part. But also, it speaks to us as consumers of information. It speaks to us at a societal level and what we can believe and what we can't believe. And really, actually, even in the last few weeks, it's pained me more than ever -- I mean, this is even [exceeding] the last four or five years -- that we don't have a way any longer of being arbiters of truth.

We used to have editorial boards for large institutions. We had the Walter Cronkites of the world. And we don't have that anymore. And so, we're polarized as ever. There's no way I can have a conversation with someone, whether it's about my industry or whether it's about a topic, and always be able to get on the same page based on those shared truths.

Sobel: It's a good wish, and I'll throw out my own bias to close this out and get your thoughts on it.

I believe we're swinging back around on the value of content. I freely admit I'm betting my own career and livelihood on this because I believe there's value in curation. I have listeners, I believe, because I'm spending the time to curate news sources, provide that information. I provide perspective. I give commentary in my 'Why Do We Care' segments, but the idea is to come through trusted sources and that the curation has value.

I'm open with my audience. It gets monetized by an advertising mechanism or direct listener support. And that's the way that it allows it. And I believe people are paying again for content.

It's interesting to hear your wish, because I believe there are ways of building businesses to solve that. And maybe it will be wishful thinking to think that somebody who's listening may decide to help invest in technology and create solutions to that, that pair the technology with the human curation, because I think the two is where we've over-rotated. What do you think? Am I right, or am I wrong?

Bitterman: I do believe you're right. That said, to date, we have seen that the experiments, so to speak, in this area have kind of failed. And you can look at Facebook as a perfect example of that, where they were sort of 'damned if they do, damned if they don't.' They created this curation team, this editorial team. There have been a lot of nonstarts with that, both from the perspective of the satisfaction of the employees in that group, as we've probably and many of our listeners have probably read, but also just the efficacy of it. And so, we've got a lot more work to do there. I think it's possible, but I think this is probably a decade-long issue to solve for. It's probably not a 12-month issue to solve for.

Sobel: Well, again, I completely agree, and I'll use my quip on this: In mystery, there is margin. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. But the things that are hard, that's where the money is.

Bitterman: That's where it's worth doing.

Sobel: Well, Jordan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.

Bitterman: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Dave.

About the author

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LogicNow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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