Fake news garnered a lot of attention during the election cycle. News sites with dubious sources and origins circulated on social media outlets – mainly Facebook – to the point where some held Mark Zuckerberg personally responsible for Donald Trump’s win. Google responded to the controversy by stating that it was working on a policy change to ban sites that misrepresented content from its advertising network AdSense.
However, the problem may be bigger than Facebook and more complicated than a single advertiser, according to the findings of an analysis L2 conducted in partnership with Trust Metrics. The data shows that while 70% of traffic for fake news sites comes from social media sites, other destinations like feedly.com and daily.com contribute to the problem. However, what many suspected is true – these sites rely almost entirely on shared content through social media or third party outlets. All are almost invisible on Google search and appear in the second or third page of Google search results for relevant keywords.
The combination of these traffic sources created a large audience. While it is difficult to estimate the total number of people who saw fake news content on social media, visits to fake news sites rivaled some of the largest news sites during the same period.
When it comes to advertising, these sites feed of one-time advertisements from brands that buy packaged media properties. This type of media buying, where advertisers buy a certain number of impressions distributed across various properties, is why brands like Warby Parker, Vanguard and Kellogg can remain unaware of their images appearing on sites like Breitbart. As this graph by L2 and Trust Metrics shows, a small number of advertisers generate a lot of impressions on Breitbart.
Similarly, direct ads account for a small (less than a quarter) portion of advertisement on the site. That number becomes even smaller when average impressions for the site are taken into account.
While an ad appearing on a fake news site might seem to be harmless, especially as the political backlash against these sites fizzles, it does harm brands. Less sophisticated readers may associate an ad with the content sponsored on the site, a perception that can especially harm those in the Financial Services category. Financial Services are the most prominent topics in fake news sites, and brands in the category are the most visible advertisers.