In a feet-to-the-fire and shoulder-to-the-wheel call to arms, Randall Rothenberg—president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)—Monday told his industry it is their duty to fight fake news, saying it was undeniable that with all the good his online ad network industry has done, some of what it has "brought into existence" has had "dire consequences."
That means identifying their customers, and "if they’re engaged in child porn or distributing pirated movies or generating neo-Nazi propaganda, or anything else you wouldn’t want your parents, spouses, neighbors, or children to know about, then stop doing business with them."
At its tenth annual leadership meeting in Hollywood, Fla., Rothenberg called on his members to rid the digital supply chain of fake news. "You wouldn’t want your son to breakfast on a cereal sourced from bacteria-riddled grains. Then you shouldn’t abet the creation, distribution, or monetization of untruthful, dangerous falsehoods to other people’s’ sons and daughters. And you should stop it now."
"Much of what the IAB community has done is undeniably beneficial," he told his audience, according to a copy for the speech. "We have given voice to the voiceless, enabled people to pursue passions across borders, helped young men and women to cure sometimes crippling social isolation by allowing them to find others just like themselves, a town or a world away. Out of bits and bytes, billions of dollars of value and millions of jobs have been created, flowing from boomtowns like Palo Alto and Seattle into mom and pop enterprises in small hamlets on every continent."
But along with that, he said, the networks his members operate can be used to distribute stolen content, block access to news, and satisfy the public's hunger for knowledge "littered deliberately with ripe falsehoods, ready to be plucked by – and to poison – the guileless."
Rothenberg said their goal must go beyond just fixing the supply chain. "Our objective isn’t to preserve marketing and advertising. When all information becomes suspect – when it’s not just an ad impression that may be fraudulent, but the data, news, and science that undergird society itself – then we must take civic responsibility for our effect on the world."
"There’s a linear connection between fake news and those trolls of digital marketing and media: click fraud, fraudulent non-human traffic, consumer data breaches, privacy violations, and the sources of ad-blocking. Each represents the failure of our supply chain – the same kind of supply chain failure we at IAB and our members have dealt with repeatedly and successfully over the years," he said.
Quoting from Genesis one moment to Alexis de Tocqueville the next, Rothenberg emphasized that IAB members had a duty as both executives and citizens to fight fake news. "As leaders of our ecosystem – as senior executives in brands, agencies, tech companies, platforms, and publishers – you have a responsibility to keep our commons safe, secure, and flourishing."
He said few of his members bear responsibility for something they could not anticipate before the fact, but given the current threat, "all of us bear responsibility to our community once a potential or actual crisis, like fake news, is identified."
Rothenberg came armed with some weapons in the fight: comply with industry standards. "[N]on-compliance with industry standards has put us on the slippery slope to relativism that leads directly to fake news," he said.
Rothenberg's invocation of neo-Nazi propaganda was not simply meant to be a frightening hypothetical. He said he recently got a letter from someone who tried to contact an IAB member who was servicing ads to a website promoting a neo-Nazi march on Martin Luther King Day.
"[A]ny company sitting in this room has the ability to police itself and to actively banish fakery, fraudulence, criminality, and hatred from its midst – and it is your obligation to do so," he said.
"Don’t tell me that it’s difficult. Don’t tell me that it will take a lot of time. Don’t tell me that it’s too complex to resolve quickly. In a multidimensional industry that can invest untold billions on driverless cars, Mars missions, Super Bowl ads, next season’s primetime lineup, and the acquisition of hot programmatic startups, surely we can fix fake news first."
He said it was up to them to move fast, fix things and "repair our credibility."
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.