Fake news, fake clicks: What newsrooms can learn from the ad world’s battle with fraud

The industry could learn a key objective from ad tech’s battle with fraud: Dis-incentivizing fraudsters.

By Jayesh Easwaramony

Las Vegas was witness to a shooting spree on Sunday (October 1, 2017) with over 500 injured. Resident Geary Danley was identified as the shooter and has been known to have harbored links with extremist groups.

This headline on the morning news feed across Google and Facebook swallowed me whole, making me instinctively click on it. A few hours later, as I continued to follow the developments on the tragedy, I discovered that the earlier post had been removed from search results, long after being paraded as a “Top Story” and a “Trending Topic” across social media. This misinformation — which had gone viral — was supposedly from online forums that are notorious for internet hoaxes and propaganda.

Fake news, fake clicks – basically fraud, was not a totally outrageous phenomenon to a mobile marketing professional like me. It could perhaps use some inspiration from the ad world’s battle with fraud.

But before I delve into the similarities with ad fraud and plausible learnings that can be adopted, let’s understand the motive behind fake news. In one common use case, misinformation and hoaxes are aimed at driving traffic, and subsequent clicks on the website that can ultimately drive ad revenues. In the larger scheme of things, misinformation could be used to further political propaganda and narratives.


Parallel #1 – The Means of Defrauding
Fundamentally, fake clicks have been the biggest driver of fraud across media, whether news (read “social”) or ad fraud. While fake clicks on news articles are aimed at manufacturing traffic, fake clicks on mobile ads are directed at maximizing the chances of stealing precious ad dollars.

Parallel #2 – Need for Regulating the Giants
At a macro-level, both newsrooms and ad worlds have been plagued by the duopoly of Facebook and Google, with self-prescribed standards and half-measures in adhering to industry benchmarks. This has consistently eroded trust within the advertising industry. Akin to the advertising world, the Facebook-Google duopoly owns the dissemination of news to billions of users across the globe and has been responsible for promoting misinformation and manipulating people’s views. It’s a huge antitrust problem — and requires the regulation of the biggest of the biggest technology platforms.

Parallel #3 – User-Generated vs Curated Content
As social platforms with user generated content, Google and Facebook have the responsibility of guaranteeing the authenticity of news and to shut the gates on fake content. On the advertising front, social platforms have found it extremely difficult to control ad placements for reputed brands on multiple occasions. As more user generated content is created, more advertising opportunities arise. This, however, also means that the next ad request could be alongside unsafe content such as an ISIS video or a marijuana drug.

The media industry must battle fake news by deriving inspiration from the fundamental objective of ad tech’s battle with fraud — weeding out fraud by dis-incentivizing fraudsters. Here’s how:

  • Global Blacklist: The ad tech ecosystem works with a global blacklist of fraudulent device IDs and IPs that are constantly updated and excluded from ad campaigns. Similarly, newsrooms and technology platforms, with a list of known fake news sources such as 4chan and Sputnik, can nip fake news at source.
  • Third-party Ratification: Technology Third party players in the ad tech ecosystem lead the efforts to establish the veracity of engagement driven by ad tech platforms. While distribution channels or tech platforms may not be able to drive ratification independently, they should employ third party fact-checkers before showcasing content as ‘top stories.’
  • Delve deep into data: Newsrooms should delve deep into data to understand fake news patterns. Data around the source of fake news, the time and country of origin and nature of headlines. Data, along with a layer of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, is the powerhouse of all anti-fraud measures in the ad tech world.
  • Regulate the Giants: As social and video platforms continue to grow as the major channel for users to access news, it is time that the technology platforms – GooFace – were treated as newsrooms themselves and brought under the ambit of antitrust laws.
Jayesh Easwaramony

Jayesh Easwaramony leads the InMobi business in Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa. Prior to his current position, he led business development for the Asia Pacific region for three years. Before InMobi, Jayesh worked with Frost and Sullivan as the leader of its TMT practice. He has advised several large companies in the mobile and media space including Samsung, SKT, Axiata and Telkom. He was widely respected for his views on the ICT industry having provided several interviews to CNBC, BBC, Channel News Asia and leading publications. Follow Jayesh Easwaramony on Twitter.

From this week


Columbia Journalism Review takes a hard look at the journalism funding done by Facebook and Google.

There are millions of dollars going into this space. While many are happy to take the money on the table, others question the ethics behind it. “The British Empire wanted trains in Kenya and India to run well, too. So their concerns are sincere, but the effect is more often than not a deeper immersion in and dependence on these platforms.” Of course this isn’t an issue unique to the tech giants — grant-giving NGOs have also faced similar critics.
Columbia Journalism Review

Governments & policy



New Naratif put together a solid story on how the Muslim Cyber Army works in Indonesia.

If you haven’t heard of the MCA (no, not that MCA in Malaysia!), they have been spreading fake news and driving hate speech along religious and ethnic lines. Worrying trend, especially in a country that’s been fighting fake news factories like Saracen. What makes this one different? “MCA looks more ideological, has thousands of networks in different parts of Indonesia and therefore the destructive power of this group is greater than that of Saracen.”
New Naratif


The New York Times is partnering with FX and Hulu on a weekly documentary series called…The Weekly.

It centres around stories from the Times and the journalists that work them. This comes hot on the heels of The Daily, their incredible podcast about one daily story from the Times newsroom. This is part of the Times’ ongoing foray into entertainment: A New York Times Magazine feature is going to be a Netflix documentary series, and Brad Pitt bought the movie rights to the story of how the Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Also coming: a four-part series for Showtime about the Times newsroom during the first year of the Trump administration.
New York Times

Media startups



SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine, nailed it with their recent redesign by Ink.

I usually have the same attitude to in-flight magazines as I do to, say, a swift slap across the face: I’d really just rather not, thanks. But this reworked version was good enough for me to forget my Economy Class kneelessness, even though the cover is easily the most forgettable part of the whole redesign: a crowded image with no focal point. But here’s why I love this redesign: 1. The layout and typography have integrity in that they are led by the content. 2. The section fronts have bold, opinionated design. 3. The reading experience is immaculate — even though they crowd little surprise nuggets in the gutter. 4. The illustrations by Stuart Patience are delicious. 5. The writing isn’t all travel-fluff and doesn’t suck. 6. Those are some mad infographics skillz. Here's an interview with the Ink creative director.
The Design Air

The Malay Mail did a website redesign.

Load times were a priority, and the new site scores well on that front. The digital team also prioritised monetizing content and enhancing their “programmatic setup”. For me, this is translating into lots of badly-placed ads for pointless leather accessories in duplicate and Outbrain-forward sewage. They are testing a new section with Mandarin content for Malaysians working in Singapore, which says good things about their user research. Structurally, the website is fine, although better hierarchy on the home and story pages would be a good idea. (Also, those Open Sans headlines need some kerning; they’re w a y t o o l o o s e.) I’m impressed with how their head of digital responded to a question about the cost of the revamp: he said the company saw it as an investment rather than an expense. Respect.
Marketing Interactive

The article page is arguably the most vital page for a news website.

Getting it right across platforms is the Holy Grail. Last week, The New York Times took a giant step towards getting it right. This involved streamlining internal efficiencies on their CMS as well as a better user experience across mobile and desktop on web and native apps. Advertising also got a major overhaul: they killed their cluttered right rail of smaller banner ads for larger, full-width, midstream ads for a much cleaner read—and it’s working: “Ads on the new page are achieving twice the click-through rate of our old design, and initial studies show higher brand recall and four-times the reader attention to ads.” Read about the process here.
New York Times

“Hi, so did you hear that crazy phone call that, umm, the Google Duplex robot assistant made to the hair salon?”

She had the whole uptalk (ending verbal statements with that millennialesque question mark subconsciously designed to maximise responsiveness) thing going on? as well as an “mmm-hmmm?” and even an “er”? It wasn’t just how real it was that blew my mind; it was that the person on the other end of the phone was able to have a complete conversation without suspecting anything. I think the tech is amazing; I think the the whole construct is creepy. Would Turing give the bot full marks? Hear it for yourself.
The Guardian

Google’s Duplex bot will now identify itself as a robot on the phone.

There were some serious concerns that Google was putting the ‘dupe’ in Duplex: “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing”. The company has clarified: “It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that.” What is it going to say, though: “Hey there, I’m Rishad’s bot assistant, so don’t be freaked out.”?