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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How publishers can beat fraudsters at their own game

July 14, 2017 | By Aram Zucker-Scharff, Director, Ad Engineering – The Washington Post @Chronotope

On the web, content fraudsters run sites that generate millions of views, get hundreds of thousands of fans, and even claw their way up to the top of search pages. Some of these sites are nothing but one person. With low-cost cash grabs taking over search and social, how can publishers win? To fix the system, they first must break it.

To beat content fraudsters at their own game publishers have to understand them. At its most dangerous, content fraud dresses itself up like news. It also includes misleading memes, and thinly veiled sales pitches. Some sites may do this for amusement, others may be cause-driven. Many do it to make money by reaping numerous impressions on low cost ad buys, often using content networks like those recommendations you see at the bottom of most news articles, or affiliate marketing.

Fraudsters can succeed using the same systems as news outlets and, occasionally, content stolen from legitimate creators. Despite networks of cheap sites and Facebook pages run by one or a small number of people, fraudsters consistently beat large organizations to trending positions.

If the media is going to improve social networks and regularly duplicate victories there are things publishers can learn and patterns they can emulate while staying ethical.

Combating fraudsters isn’t just strategy; it’s necessity. They negatively impact users’ trust in news and wreck the advertising ecosystem, pushing brands to move money towards metrics, usually at the publisher’s expense and with only the illusion of accuracy.

Trending algorithms on Facebook or Google are trying to understand the relationship between points of data to spot behavior that indicates a pattern of growing strong connections. Think of a cat’s cradle, where every bend increases not just the number of connections, but the complexity of the pattern. The reliability rating of each connecting node is important but sometimes the numbers have greater significance. A Facebook link only needs about 1,000 shares in a close time-frame to trend, according to their tool for journalists, Signal.

Meaningful Connections

The first strategy outlets can reclaim from fraudsters is that it isn’t just about their own content. Successful content fraud pages on Facebook don’t just share their own content, but others’ as well. And some of the links may even be to legitimate sites. Publishers who make their internet presences all about themselves are at a disadvantage.

In a search for algorithmic legitimacy, content fraudsters spin complex schemes to trick legitimate sites into linking to them. Legitimately linking out on Facebook, and even on their own sites (as both the Washington Post and The New York Times are doing) is an opportunity to create useful complexity. More types of connections are a good signal for algorithms. Furthermore, the market shows it is an activity readers value.

More is More

Second, publishers must simply to be more massive. Some are already starting to figure this out, BuzzFeed’s Food vertical alone has five Facebook pages. Even with huge platforms like Facebook, it doesn’t take much to create a trend. Posting to multiple pages can significantly boost readership numbers for a publication and its social media professionals.

A notable factor in Facebook trends is centering a large number of posts very close to each other with very similar titles. This is another way to apply viral cooperation, in that Facebook uniqueness (in headlines) can actually work against you. Seeking to publish similar headlines (or at least social headlines) between publications can be useful, especially if the topic is important to readers and worth promoting, regardless of which publication gets the clicks. Make massiveness for big important stories easier by coordinating with content partnerships on which big stories to publish when. It seems like it is less competitive, but it elevates all participants.

Narrow with a Focus

A third lesson, gleaned from examining content fraud Facebook pages, is that many of them are focused on small verticals but often share large stories that are related to the central focus. This is a behavior worth emulating: Approach readers via social networks on the smallest slices of their interests, and when there is a big story that affects more than one of those tiny slices, share it massively across all of them.

Go big, go narrow and don’t be afraid to make friends. Publishers have a choice: Complain about the system, or take advantage of it. If media outlets force their way into the flaws of the system, they can compete effectively, and push platforms to build better methodologies.


Aram Zucker-Scharff is the Director for Ad Engineering in The Washington Post’s Research, Experimentation and Development group. He is also the lead developer for the open-source tool PressForward and a consultant on content strategy and newsroom workflows. He was one of Folio Magazine’s 15 under 30 in the magazine media industry. He previously worked as Salon.com’s full stack developer. His work has been covered multiple times in journalism.co.uk and he has appeared in The Atlantic, Digiday, Poynter, and Columbia Journalism Review. He has also worked as a journalist, a community manager and a journalism educator.

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