Investors Want Proof That Digital Ads Aren’t Funding Misinformation

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Early this week, The New York Times reported that shareholders at two major media buyers, Omnicom and Home Depot, filed resolutions in November asking for investigations into whether their digital ad buys contributed to “the spread of hate speech, disinformation, white supremacist activity or voter suppression efforts.” The resolutions, which were coordinated by corporate accountability nonprofit Open MIC, were first made public on Jan. 15.

Brands have long been struggling to keep tabs on their ad placements due to the complex nature of the ad-tech ecosystem. With many players along the supply chain, brands can end up advertising on—and, in turn, funding—websites and content that run counter to their companies’ stated values.

It’s a problem that marketers Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi aimed to clarify with their newsletter, Branded, and fix through their brand safety startup Check My Ads. Given the impact that activist investors could have on brand safety and the proliferation of misinformation online, nitronet caught up with Atkin to discuss how this could mark a turning point for the ad-tech industry.

nitronet: Can you contextualize the Omnicom-Home Depot investor demands, and explain how this might be different than some of the other actions that have been taken to address misplaced ads and misinformation in recent years?
Atkin: For years, advertisers have been funding disinformation, hate speech and white supremacy with their ad budgets, largely because the ad-tech ecosystem seems hell bent on maintaining political neutrality at all costs and refuses to take down sites that are brand unsafe. For years now, marketers have asked ad exchanges and brand safety companies to keep our ads away from white nationalist publishers. We don’t know why they haven’t got the message yet.

Now, for the first time, investors are having to insert themselves into the relationship between digital advertising and violent extremism. That’s new, and I’m optimistic that this is yet another sign that we’re going to see a big shift in how the industry approaches brand safety this year.

What specific role could these activist investors play in preventing misinformation? Obviously there’s no silver bullet, but does this create a new opportunity in the fight against ad-funded misinformation online?
Yes, this is about a huge sum of money that is currently unaccounted for in our current practices. There’s lots of room for change. There are three hurdles to this problem: drawing the line between what is and is not appropriate use of your ad spend; communicating your standards down the chain of command; and then operationalizing them using the tools available on social media and ad exchange dashboards. If I were these investors, I would insist on starting that first conversation, and on communicating the needs of the brand to the platforms.

With a new administration in the White House, do you think there’s a new opportunity for a policy response to ad-funded misinformation online?
There needs to be more transparency for marketers in ad tech. Currently, we don’t have the information and the control we need to decide where our ads will go.

What else can brands do right now to ensure they’re not funding misinformation?
The first step is to get everyone onboard with checking ads and making sure you’re staying far away from hate speech and extremism. At Check My Ads, we thought companies would need ad checks, but what we learned is that it’s actually more important to just understand what brand safety is, and how to operationalize it properly within your ad campaigns.

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