From a business perspective, it behooves me to tell people to constantly create things. More domains, more websites, more voices. But when I go to bed at night, the thought that consumes me is “how do we filter out the bs?” And how are we going to deal with the growing segment of society that can’t tell the difference between conspiracy theories and actual news?
One solution would be to somehow tag the internet. This site is good, this site is bad. This site spreads lies, this site has editorial standards. But how can that be done without damaging the decentralized structure of the internet? The internet isn’t run by a dictator who filters the good from the bad (although Google might come close?), it’s a place for all the voices. And for most of its history, the cream rose to the top. Dark corners have always existed, but they were dark. And in corners. But now those dark corners are mainstream, and the creme that seems to be rising to the top is pretty unsavory.
Not to be political, but actual governments of highly influential countries (cough, USA, cough) are spreading misinformation like it’s the real thing. And, if I’m going to be honest, most of the population that didn’t grow up with the internet is having a real hard time dealing with it. Everything seems authoritative, and it’s hard to know what sources are credible and which aren’t. One day Buzzfeed is a site for internet quizzes, the next they’re staffed with credible journalists and have White House press credentials. Then another day you have the Gateway Pundit writing tweets about Pepe the Frog, and the next they have White House press credentials. Sad!
Whether you like it or not, news isn’t news isn’t news anymore. If you’re just a passive consumer, picking the “right news” is a mess.
But there is one de facto filtering system that could fix it all: advertising. (Say what?!)
There’s a podcast I really like that said something very smart a few weeks ago. On Make Me Smart, Molly Wood said something to the effect of, if traditional government checks and balances are under attack, businesses might be our de facto last hope (which is scary because most businesses are purely self-serving). She was speaking specifically about direct business/government relations, but companies also have an indirect role to play when authoritarianism is on the rise and press freedoms are under attack. They get to decide what sites get their ad dollars.
Advertising on the internet can go one of two ways: businesses either work directly with the media or with agencies/ad networks that promise a certain “bang for your buck.”
The days of the latter may (should) be coming to an end (in its current form at least). There was a time when advertising was just something you did to get your name out, but today, advertising has to be seen as a form of endorsement. When your brand advertises on a site, your brand is paying that site’s bills. Put better, when you put an ad on an ad network that feeds to Breitbart, you’re paying for them to exist. Your brand is casting a vote for what makes money on the internet, intentional or not.
(Aside 1: Selective ad networks like The Deck don’t apply (they’re clearly on the “nice” list). Ads on The Deck only appear on invited sites, and the roster is very transparent. Still, if you’re planning to run an ad on a network like this, it’s good practice to check out all the sites involved.)
(Aside 2: Larger ad networks often give advertisers some control over the sites their ads get served to, but as a brand, you’re relinquishing your vote. At the end of the day, your ad dollars are funding who knows what. See: Rolling Stone (below) and Papa Johns (below that))
(Aside 3: There’s also a consumer aspect to this. We, as internet users, have to keep businesses accountable. When we see a brand openly endorsing a site spreading hate (remember, ads are usually what keep the lights on), the “I don’t know where my ads are going” excuse just isn’t going to work anymore. The internet – especially internet news – isn’t just some side show – it basically got the President of the United States elected. These things matter.)
All that said, I still believe free speech on the internet is important, and it’s ok for people not to agree with everything everyone says. But that doesn’t mean it’s ok to unintentionally fund their existence. Here’s a metaphor I think works:
There’s a guy on a soapbox on a street corner screaming about who-knows-what. Even if it’s complete nonsense, as long as he’s not screaming threats, it’s fine. But wait! Why is he wearing a t-shirt with your name on it? Oh right, because you gave a bunch of shirts to a marketing company that selected soapbox guy because he’s in a high-traffic area and hit the target age demographic.
That wouldn’t be acceptable in the real world, and it shouldn’t be acceptable online. But that’s what the majority of the internet is – brands funding websites they’ve never heard of because they can’t be bothered to take the time to see where their ads are going. If that unintentional money dried up, so would a lot of the noise.
There are a lot of TLDR’s here, but the main message is to businesses large and small. KNOW WHERE YOUR AD DOLLARS ARE GOING – whether you’re a giant pizza chain, an online tax prep site, or a local credit union, advertising on sites actively trying to destabilize the world isn’t a good look. And also, when you’re supporting a nonsense site that’s littering the internet with Taboola ad network ads, you’re not helping things either (H&R Block, I’m looking at you).
Leads to this: