- Hoaxes and intentionally misleading news continue to be promoted on big tech platforms run by Facebook and Google.
- The companies have shown they can make big changes when properly incentivized.
- Advertisers could pull their ads from Facebook and Google to force the companies to fix the fake news problem.
It’s amazing how advanced the technology behind Facebook and YouTube can be.
Both sites can prevent porn from ever reaching your feed, identifying and deleting the offensive content almost in real time. They can scrub certain speech that’s illegal in some countries, like pro-Nazi content in Germany. Suicides and murders? Nope. (For the most part.) The technical wizardry that goes into that kind of moderation for sites that take in such massive quantities of user-generated content each day is incredible.
These people are super-geniuses.
And yet, none of the so-called Big Tech companies, with all their smarts, ingenuity, and experience weeding out the bad stuff, can seem to stop the spread of hoaxes and fake news – even after several promises and changes to their algorithms. For a bunch of super-geniuses, they’re doing a pretty bad job at solving a relatively straightforward problem.
It happened again Wednesday when conspiracy theory videos claiming that Florida shooting survivor David Hogg was a paid actor made it into YouTube and Facebook’s trending sections and search results. Both companies admitted the screwup, and much of the hoax content was gone by late in the afternoon.
But it was too late. The damage was done. And there’s little reason to believe something similar won’t happen next time there’s a major national tragedy. We’ve seen it happen so many times already.
Now for the big question: Why are Facebook and YouTube so good at keeping stuff like porn and copyrighted material off their platforms, but are consistently caught with their pants down every time users game the system to spread hoaxes tied to major news events?
As I wrote last week, I think one answer is they don’t believe in the truth. But I also think they lack the proper business incentive to make it happen.
Yes, fake news is a big problem, but it only makes up a tiny fraction of all the user-generated content posted on Facebook and YouTube. And in some ways, allowing those hoaxes and conspiracy theories on the platform keeps a subset of users happy. John Herrman of the New York Times interviewed the anonymous YouTube user who uploaded the Hogg conspiracy video that made it to the top of the site’s trending section. The user said he had every intention of uploading more videos like it in the future.
So if the incentive isn’t coming from users or a group of journalists writing about every time Facebook, Google, or Twitter screws up, maybe it should come from advertisers.
It’s worked before.
As we learned when several big-name advertisers fled YouTube after learning some of their ads were appearing next to extremist videos, YouTube moved quickly to make changes. Within a few weeks, it added technological safeguards to make sure ads don’t run next to extremist videos. After the Logan Paul suicide video fiasco last month, YouTube promised human moderators will look over all content posted by the company’s “preferred creators,” the group of high-profile video channels that attracts big-name advertisers.
It turns out, you have to hit Big Tech companies in the pocketbook if you want them to take change seriously. Fake news isn’t a problem they can’t fix; it’s a problem they’re not properly incentivized to fix.
That’s where advertisers can come in and force change by withholding advertising. They could take the moral high ground, effectively holding Facebook and Google hostage until the problem is fixed.
Some big advertisers have already started to speak out. AT&T still hasn’t returned to YouTube since others initially abandoned the site last year. The company’s chief brand officer Fiona Carter told The New York Times that AT&T has concerns YouTube’s algorithms aren’t good enough to ensure ads won’t appear next to bad content. Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed threatened to reduce its ad spend online if the big tech platforms didn’t clean things up.
As my colleague Mike Shields wrote, an advertiser boycott is unlikely to have a big effect on Facebook and Google’s bottom lines. Most of Facebook and Google’s advertisers come from small businesses, not giants like Unilever or PepsiCo. It’d make a dent, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic.
But I think a number of big brands banding together and pulling advertising their advertising would force change. It worked last year with those extremist videos on YouTube. The Logan Paul controversy was big enough to spook YouTube into proactively finding a solution before there was any advertiser blowback. It’s not worth the PR nightmare and the cascading effect it would have throughout the industry as other brands joined the boycott.
Shields also pointed out that advertisers could shun new initiatives, like Facebook’s new video section Watch. Watch videos are well-produced, TV-style shows designed to attract big ad dollars away from traditional TV networks. If those advertisers threatened to stay away from Watch until Facebook fixed its fake news issues, I have a feeling that’d create enough leverage to force change.
Meanwhile, we know the Big Tech platforms have the power and capability to fix the problem. If a bunch of untrained amateurs can identify fake news being promoted on Facebook or YouTube, then so can a bunch of super geniuses working at companies approaching trillion-dollar valuations. Plus, all the Big Tech platforms have proven they know how to filter out content when it affects their ability to operate somewhere, even if it’s against their founding principle that they should serve as an agnostic service.
Unfortunately, none of this seems likely to happen. After saying he might reduce spending online, Unilever’s Weed later walked back those comments a bit in an interview with Business Insider. Instead, he said he wanted to work with Facebook and Google to fix the problem.
But that’s been the status quo for ages. It’s not working.
Advertisers have an opportunity to make a change to a problem plaguing tech platforms that affect the way people get news, think, and even vote. That seems like an accomplishment that would be much more profound than running another ad in someone’s News Feed.
Even better, it wouldn’t cost them a cent.