Hold Websites Responsible For False Advertising And Fake News

I had noticed last week that several supposedly respectable websites I check on had a news link that claimed that Michael Douglas had died. It was so pervasive I googled the news. Nope. Completely false. Total clickbait and a lie. Still, those fake headlines stayed up for days.

On The Daily Beast right now, looking exactly like one of the left-leaning news aggregator’s features, is a story headlined “Rush  in Total Ruins.” Then we have the revelation that Facebook profited from accepting links to false stories, paid for by Russian organizations seeking to undermine public faith and trust in democratic institutions. Facebook also has delivered to my page death hoaxes involving Clint Eastwood, Tiger Woods, Diana Ross, Raquel Welch, and Brad Pitt among others. Many of these are phishing schemes.

Websites that claim to be trustworthy and credible cannot agree, for whatever price, to place lies under their banners. They have a duty of due diligence. If they breach it, they should be liable. Even if the law can’t punish them based on  content, it should be able to punish such sites for aiding and abetting fraud for profit. How hard would it have been to check whether Michael Douglas was alive or not? How much time would it take to have an intern check to see whether Rush Limbaugh’s career is endangered? Newspapers have always excised discretion regarding ads, accepting their responsibility to keep their readers from being scammed. From what I am seeing now, websites accept no similar responsibility.

There have to be consequences.

Here’s my rule: if a site will accept money to allow someone else to lie to me, then that website will lie to me too. At bare minimum, any website not vetting its ads sufficiently to prevent outright scams and falsehoods must be required to display a prominent disclaimer stating that the site does not vouch for the accuracy of  any advertisements or news items posted by another entity, and that readers are on their own. Of course, this will diminish the value of ads from scammers, Russian and Albanian teens, costing the lazy and venal websites income.

Tough.

Websites will say that it is impossible to vet such ads.

Don’t accept ad money, then. You chose the business. Solve the problem, or do something you can do competently.

I’m sure such a legally mandated warning would be challenged on First Amendment grounds as compelled speech. Maybe it can’t be required by law.  However, consumers have the power to punish websites that help others deceive their own readers, and should.

7 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Journalism & Media, Marketing and Advertising, The Internet

7 responses to “Hold Websites Responsible For False Advertising And Fake News

  1. dragin_dragon

    Yes, they should…but they won’t.

  2. Michael Douglas dead? No wonder what he looks like now is outrageous…

  3. Jeff

    A website I used to frequent had tons of problems with ads. When readers complained, the owner always claimed that the ad network was responsible for the shady content (several times, ads were served that had malware code in them that attempted to hijack users’ browsers, and most of the ads were trashy clickbait totally unrelated to the site’s topic), and there was little they could do.

    It didn’t ever seem to occur to the proprietor that he could drop the sketchy ad service, forego the easy money, and keep his readers happy (of course, it did occur to him, and was pointed out many times by many readers, but he apparently preferred the easy income). That site has been in a pretty steady downward slide, in no small part due to the loss of readership this has caused. A good lesson that ethical behavior is generally a smart business strategy.

    The dynamic at play here is that it’s very simple and easy to sign up with these ad networks and just start collecting checks. Actually seeking out and vetting your own advertisers is hard work, and most people today are quite averse to hard work. That’s no excuse, of course, but it’s easy to see how “fake news” and fraudulent ads have become so ever-present on the web.

  4. Ash

    > Websites will say that it is impossible to vet such ads.

    And it may be impossible for FB to vet every ad before it goes up, BUT

    A policy could be made and told to their ad suppliers, that that sort of ad breaks their rules

    Every ad from a new ad distributor partner can be vetted

    When readers report an ad, that ad can count as a strike against the ad supplier

    Enough reports and the ad is taken down

    Enough strikes and the ad supplier is banned

  5. Wayne

    I would have laughed this one off and not bit. Kirk Douglas will be 101 (!) in December so I’m considering the family has a great gene pool. Still these websites might be listed as dubious on a trustworthy conservative version of Snopes if such a website exists.

  6. luckyesteeyoreman

    I agree with you, Jack. Liability must bite, and bite hard with a big gulp, on purveyors of noise such as phishing attacks and false reports of persons’ deaths. On a nitpicking note, however, I do believe you meant to say above: “Newspapers have always exercised (not “excised”) discretion regarding ads, accepting their responsibility to keep their readers from being scammed.”

  7. Until and unless those who allow such scams (I am looking at you, phone companies) are held responsible for selling a public utility’s services (and Internet is defined as such these days just as phone has been for years) to criminals, nothing will change. They are making money from being an accessory, and jail time would make them a bit more careful.

    Just like those who employ illegals.

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