A few years ago, after a week that included a lot of activity but no – to my judgment – tangible accomplishment, I started a daily regimen of walking five miles and doing 100 pushups and 100 situps. That way, I’d always end the day knowing at least I’d accomplished that.
Because executive life is like that. Some days you’re slaying dragons. Other days you’re trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. And if you’re a results-oriented Type-A person, that can be infuriating.
Five miles. 100 pushups. 100 situps. Done.
I’ve rarely missed a day – until about a month ago. Even though I’d had a flu shot, the B-strain – the flu’s evil little brother – knocked me out. No energy. It didn’t matter what I wanted to accomplish, I was sapped before I even started the day.
I thought of that feeling last week, speaking at a World Economic Forum summit in San Francisco focused on combating fake news and the role of user data privacy in rebuilding a society jaded by disinformation, misleading ads, retargeting chumboxes that lead readers to data-hijacking cesspools – don’t lecture me that this is how you’re paying the bills at the expense of your only real differentiator: trust – and general Macedonian malware mayhem. I thought of that weakened state I was just recovering from, particularly when we started talking about the real cost to publishers.
And that’s ad fraud.
Juniper Research predicted that ad fraud would cost online publishers $19 billion dollars in 2018. Forrester Research and Borrell Associates put similar numbers to it. It's a real-dollar cost to the conversation of fake news - or what I've called digital propaganda - and it's spreading faster. At the WEF summit, Deb Roy, MIT associate professor and director of the Media Lab's Laboratory for Social Machines, presented frightening evidence of the largest-ever study on fake news, showing that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.
This is where we are: It is easier to build audiences on falsity than on veracity. It is easier to make money from fraud than an honest day's work.
Rogue code inserted into a publisher’s site – or layered in, unbeknownst to the publisher – siphons off billions of dollars every year that otherwise would pay for quality journalism and entertainment.
That’s like having the flu. That's like having the equivalent of Captain Trips, the superflu in Stephen King's sprawling doomsday novel "The Stand" - a flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the human race. Publishers are working at a fraction of their energy because a large amount of their revenue is being shunted away from them, weakened and falling face-down in their soup. It's a funny tableau until it's you.
And, too often, publishers aren’t doing enough to protect themselves.
Last year, I invited Google to hold multiple webinars for members of the Local Media Consortium to educate local newspaper and broadcast companies about how to better protect their interests – and their readers. These centered on two practices/platforms: Ads.txt and Project Shield.
Ads.txt is a text file at the server level that basically verifies which advertisers are approved to run on your website. It’s very simple and straightforward, and is a protection against ad fraud. Project Shield is a layer of protection developed by Google to protect news and human rights publishers from DDoS attacks – a hijacking of websites by hackers at home and abroad, which were all too common in the last presidential election.
When I left the Consortium last month, less than half of the members had installed ads.txt files to their sites. Only a handful even asked about Project Shield.
Too busy. Other priorities.
A newcomer to the fraud protection space, Dev/Con Detect, is the brainchild of former newspaper executive Maggie Louie. It detects fraud within encrypted and exploited ad calls and site widgets. This fraud happens sometimes by accident, sometimes by internal malfeasance; Dev/Con Detect’s platform should be a no-brainer in recovering lost dollars – and holding people to account. But too often, Louie said, the pitch is met with “not a priority right now.”
$19 Billion. This year. Before you even get out of bed.
We have a moral obligation to our communities to provide quality, verifiable information. We also have the moral responsibility to do everything in our power to prevent our users from being hijacked, their data leeched out of them and used against them. And media companies have a fiduciary responsibility to plug every hole so that their revenue efforts don’t start each day in a hole dug by fraud.
It’s the flu. And it’s killing the industry. Even if it isn’t your priority.