How to fight fake news – first thoughts

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

I am working on three projects fighting fake news. Here are some common challenges that we face. And some initial thoughts on solutions.

The fake news challenge: Brain hacking

Creating and spreading fake news has become easier in recent years. Virality is a good metaphor for how ideas spread, real or fake.

For fake news to spread it must:

  1. Spread easily.
  2. Spread quickly.
  3. Reach a lot of people. In practice this is either being seeded to a lot of people, spread by media organisations or with paid advertising.

This post focuses on the first point – how to create (or disrupt) effective ideas. The second and third points can largely be achieved by regulation and self-regulation of media and social networks.

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post
Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

Why does fake news work?

Fake news works because most of the time the human brain’s emotional side makes decisions unconsciously. The conscious, rational, side simply post-rationalises these decisions.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor is that the conscious brain thinks it’s the Oval office, when in fact it’s the press office.

The brain’s vulnerabilities create many opportunities for fake news. Seven problems that we have seen frequently are listed below, along with possible solutions.


Seven fake news problems and solutions

  1. Speed

First impressions matter. Even people who find out that a fake story isn’t true will often remember the fake story. And it’s really easy to make up stories if you are unethical, compared to reporting the truth. It’s simply faster.


Consider creating a team to spot, evaluate, and react to appropriate stories. This team can try and kill fake news early on. Ideally this is linked to traditional media to reduce amplification of fake news.

Tools such as Zignal may allow early identification of relevant issues so they can be countered early.

Often it’s impossible to be fast enough though. Then inoculation is needed. This means that if people see a fake story, they are less likely to believe it. For instance Barack Obama in 2008 innoculated against accusations of being a Muslim by stressing his Christianity, rather than debunking claims that he was Muslim.


2. Repetition

Familiarity with a message makes it more memorable. This is especially true of people who aren’t expert. Which is most of us, most of the time. So a message that gets repeated becomes familiar, and remembered.


Focus on reducing the reach of fake news, to minimise the number of people who see a message. That means, often, ignoring a potential fight. Something that can be hard on social media.

Avoid repeating our opponent’s messages.


3. Ease

The easier people find it to watch or read a message, the more credible it is. That’s because our brains confuse the two things.

Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and memes all increase ease. As do clear fonts, design and rhymes.


Try to create content in the simplest language possible. For instance, I’ve rewritten this blogpost several times to make it more readable. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was when I first wrote it.

Also consider partners like Buzzfeed, who are good at simple explanations of complex issues.


4. Multi-channel

People who see a message in several places, perceive it as more credible. Partly this is because there are more opportunities for you to trust the source.


Monitor across a range of online and offline channels. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will usually be the key social media channels. But less mainstream sites such as discussion forums, Tumblr and email lists can also be important.


5. Authority cues

If a message looks like it comes from a credible source (e.g. a news channel) then it is perceived as more credible. Unfortunately it’s now easy to photoshop authority.


Ensure content includes authority cues, such as your spokespeople appearing on TV.

Also help the public to spot fake authority cues. Unfortunately it’s easy for fake news promoters like RT to pretend to be real news organisations. But they look like them, with TV studios and other serious news cues.

6. Social proof

If a friend shares a Facebook post you are dramatically more likely to remember the content.


Use social media sharing as a metric to prioritise which fake news to address. And consider who is sharing your content. Is it just your hardcore fans, or are you reaching beyond them?


7. Messenger effects

We are more likely to notice messages from people we know and trust. These might be traditional celebrities or people who have become popular online. Of course this gives power to people who may not be experts.

Endorsements can be faked too, as Martin Lewis has found out recently.


Innoculate celebrities through a programme focused at them. Contact celebrities to discourage them repeat spreading misinformation.


Credit: There’s a lot of good academic research on fake news at the moment. I particularly recommend RAND’s recent report.

Fight fake news in Russia

How do you fight fake news? There are lots of options. But taking real news into Russia is rarely mentioned.

I’ve put here an updated blogpost that I originally wrote back in March 2014. It gives some simple ideas about how to use Facebook advertising against Putin.

The problem: Russia is full of fake news

It’s well known that the Russian government maintains political support by suppressing the independent media, and deliberately making political discussion online difficult. Russia is likely among the top countries in the world for people believing fake news.

So I wondered if there was a way to counter this, right in Putin’s backyard.

Using Facebook ads to fight Putin

In early March 2014 I started a small personal campaign to bring unbiased news to Russian speaking residents of Sevastopol, , the capital city of Crimea.

Finding unbiased news was simple. I found the Russian language pages of the BBC website and then set up Facebook advertising targeted at people who lived in Sevastopol.

Facebook advertising is quick to set up and reasonably cheap. Best of all it’s good at targeting people in specific locations.

Back then I thought it was a good time to extend this to Moscow (where Russian public opinion is split on the war) and to eastern Ukraine.


My ads reached 5,992 people in Sevastopol, resulting in 171 people clicking through to the BBC website – a fairly typical rate. In other words a reasonable number of Ukrainian or Russian residents. I paid an average of just under 10p per click – not unreasonable.

I hope that the impact might be magnified if people in Crimea then get into the habit of using unbiased news websites.

How to do this

Setting up Facebook advertising is easy – just follow this guide. Even if you’ve never done it before you’ll be able to set it up in 15 minutes .

If you want to get more ambitious there are alternatives for geo-targeted ads. Facebook is good because of its reach and ease to set up. YouTube also works well.

This gives you an idea of the sort of picture you should see:

Facebook ads to fight fake news in Crimea
Facebook ads to fight fake news in Crimea

Why isn’t Apple Pay taking off?

Google, Apple, Facebook (GAF)* are all trying to crack mobile selling.

Yet none of them have. And the signs are that they won’t crack it in Britain soon.

Why is this?

Well it’s not an impossible nut to crack.

China has done it. Recently there have been reports of cash disappearing in Chinese cities as people use their phones to pay for everything. Restaurants, taxis, coffee shops and even buskers take mobile money.

And Kenya’s been developing mobile money for years, well ahead of European markets.

But western markets, especially Britain, are going in a different direction.

Relatively few people use GAF to pay for anything except the odd app on Android Play or the Apple Appstore.

It’s not like GAF aren’t trying. Every few months there’s a new attempt to get us to save our card payment details on our phones. Then we could easily pay by waving our phone.

For instance Apple have recently added made payment via Watch easier. Apple Pay integrations reportedly increase checkout conversion rates by 200%. And this sort of dramatic increase in conversions from Apple Pay has been reported in many comparable situations where people save their card details.

But there’s been plenty of evidence in recent months that most people aren’t converting to Apple Pay and its competitors.

Ofcom 2017 Communications Market Report shows that only 5% of people have tried mobile payment, up 1% on the year.

I was intrigued by this. So I asked Transport for London (TfL) – who deal with millions of transactions annually covering £1.7bn. You’d expect that London as the leading city in the UK, itself one of the leading ecommerce markets globally, would be a major user of Apple Pay.

London Transport shows Apple Pay’s problem

TfL’s figures show something different.  

TfL statistics on Apple Pay vs. Contactless
TfL statistics on Apple Pay vs. Contactless.

They show that only 1.5% of payments on the London underground system are by Apple & Android Pay. That compares to 17.7% by contactless cards. That’s 12 times more payments through cards than contactless. The balance in case you are wondering is people using London’s Oyster payment card – of whom 80% are topping up by bank card.

In other words people have the choice to use Android and Apple Pay, but they just don’t use it.

Figures from UK Finance, a trade body, show contactless payment using cards rocketing. 34% of card payments are now contactless, and use is increasing fast, up 130% in the last year.  Britons turn out to find contactless payment even better than mobile payments.

Why isn’t Apple Pay taking off?

It seems to be the value of being first mover for contactless cards.

As Scott Thompson, Insights Director at Publicis Media says, “If you use a card (Oyster or credit/debit) and it doesn’t work, it looks like there is a problem with the card or the reader. Everyone has experienced it, so you get some degree of sympathy. But if you use a phone (or worse, a watch) and it doesn’t work, you just look like an idiot playing with technology that doesn’t work and getting in everyone’s way.”

I’m also told by industry experts that the RFID technology in contactless cards tends to work slightly faster and more reliably than the type of NFC used in phones.

So the key thing is practical. Contactless payment comes automatically with 111m cards being used in Britain. And there are 506,000 terminals that take payment. That means almost everyone can take one out of their wallet and pay.

A contactless vending machine in London
A contactless vending machine in London


You’ll virtually never wave your card at the bar of a pub for them to look at you confused. While if you wave your phone or your watch, they might look confused.

So while the barriers to people using Apple & Android Pay aren’t high, they are just high enough to slow their adoption. Probably not forever. But a good reminder that just because you might think that a technology should take off, it’s not the same as it going mainstream.

*Amazon is missing from this list because they do have large numbers of logged in users for their app. And, currently, they aren’t trying to be a facilitator of buying anything on any device. You still need to go through their website or app for everything.

Digital strategy resources

I’m often asked what I read to keep up to date. So here’s a list of resources I regularly use and people I follow on Twitter. It goes alongside the best email lists that I subscribe to.

Ofcom Communication Market Reports

Ofcom’s Communication Market Reports, out annually, are a treasure trove of useful and credible data on UK consumers.  They also do a lot of other good research, particularly on  telco and media.

Use of major Google services from Ofcom 2017.
Use of major Google services from Ofcom 2017.

We Are Social trends

We Are Social’s trends and statistics decks are a  fast way to grab international comparisons. Look here for things like the number of people using Facebook in India versus Indonesia. As ever check you are comfortable with the sources before using.

The Made to Stick Blog

Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick is a highly readable book about making memorable ideas. They explain their SUCCESs model for stickiness here.

Think with Google resources

Google Think is vastly ahead of their competitors in producing useful research. Unsurprisingly it’s largely based on substantive original data, often from the backend of Google products. Their Tools section is particularly useful with resources on data sources, emerging technologies and consumer insights.

Twitter have also recently released a useful set of resources for agencies.

Mary Meeker’s internet trends

Mary Meeker’s internet trends deck is read by most of the digital industry. It’s not quite as useful as it once was, but it is still unmissable. It is horribly ugly, and absurdly long, but always full of surprising insights and data.

Ogilvy Trends

My former colleagues Marshall Manson and James Whatley have been doing an annual trends deck for a few years now. It’s focused on a few big trends each year. Last year they focused on chatbots, ethics, video , Twitter’s troubles and Facebook’s metrics problem. And they now mark their own homework from previous years, which is fun to watch.

People I read almost everything by*

Alex Steer

The Chief Strategy Officer of Maxus has the best thought out views on measurement in the marketing industry.

Ian Leslie

Ian Leslie is a former advertising planner. Now working as a journalist doing for in-depth industry analysis that’s rarely found elsewhere.

War On The Rocks

Consistently War on the Rocks has great blogposts like this one on ‘thinking outside the box’. They come from a US military and national security perspective but with relevance to all sorts of challenges. The associated excellent Bombshell podcast by by Radha Iyengar, Loren D Schulman and Erin Simpson is one of my favourite podcasts.

Anjali Ramachandran

As well as being a top media strategist, Anjali founded Ada’s List – which works to get more women in tech. And she provides me with lots of South Asian knowledge that I’d miss out on otherwise.

Mark Ritson

Professor Ritson continues to entertain us with his smart analysis of bullshit in marketing. And admirably he regularly admits to being wrong.

Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway’s L2 consultancy has done a very successful job of producing league tables and case studies for everything from luxury handbags to soap powder. But he also does great analysis of how Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are changing our world. He sometimes overstates certainty of his conclusions, but it’s hard to argue with most of his big picture.

Byron Sharp

Byron Sharp is infuriating and slightly trollish. But his work critiquing badly thought out marketing strategies is crucial, and anyone working in the industry needs to understand it – even if you don’t buy into all of his conclusions.

Rory Sutherland

Rory is not just one of the most entertaining people in the marketing world. He’s also a fount of smart ideas and challenges to the usual way of doing things.

Behaviour change on the South Bank
Behaviour change on the South Bank. Not quite enough provocation to be Rory Sutherland’s work but close.

Theo Bertram

Theo Bertram used to advise Blair and Brown. Now he does brilliant anecdotes about his time with them. Not just entertaining but also excellent instructions on the mechanics of messaging.


Karin Robinson

Karin has been my deputy twice now. More importantly she is great on social data – for instance uncovering big holes in Twitter’s gender data. She has also been a leading light in Democrat’s Abroad for over 10 years so is excellent on political messaging, US politics generally and grassroots campaigning.

Richard Shotton

Richard tweets on behaviour change and marketing. His simple twist on most Twitter is to screengrab books he’s read. A small thing but it provides a bit more depth than a typical Twitter feed. His guest editing of the APG blog is a superb reading list on behaviour change.

Venkatash Rao

Venkatash Rao consistently raises difficult questions about technology with thoughtful answers and links to further reading.

Ali Goldsworthy

Ali is on the Board of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and knows a lot about smart philanthropy and targeted political spending. We sometimes write articles about how to win political campaigns.

Dennis Yu

Dennis is one of the most expert people in the world on how to target Facebook advertising. I work with him occasionally.

The Influence at Work team

Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin provide practical inspiration on how to use behaviour change science for good. Steve’s also been an occasional collaborator of mine and client. If you’ve not read their books, you should.

And lots of other resources

This list of other useful free resources from the Nextweb is worth a look.

Digiday constantly provides a good stream of interesting and useful news.


*This excludes most of my political reading which is not really relevant to most readers of this blog. On politics I highly recommend market researchers like James Morris, Marcus Roberts, Ian Warren. And John Oliver and Trevor Noah do superb work making complex policy simple.

Ofcom Communication Market Report 2017

The annual Ofcom Communications Market Report is a treasure trove of data on how the UK behaves. I find myself regularly referring to it through the year as I work to distinguish hype from real trends.

Facebook-Google is dominant

Among Android users 9 of the top 10 apps are from Google or Facebook. On any measure – from users, to time spent – Facebook and Google are far ahead of competitors.

Google properties: Audience penetration
Source: Comscore/CMR 2017; Graph by Rob Blackie Digital Strategy

While Facebook has the social networking giants (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger), Google has a wider variety of services, from YouTube and Search to Maps, Gmail, Drive and Chrome. Even Blogger, often forgotten, has almost as many users (9.6m) as Snapchat (10.3m).

This dominance can be seen everywhere.


Facebook has three of the five biggest apps

Now that WhatsApp has overtaken Twitter, Facebook has three of the top five apps.

Audience reach of top social networks (UK adults)

Audience reach of top social networks (UK adults)
YouGov 2017 cited by CMR 2017; Graph by Rob Blackie Digital Strategy

These apps notch up astonishing levels of use.  94% of Facebook users have used it in the last week, and on average users check it 12 times a day. WhatsApp is checked 10 times a day.


YouTube increasingly looks like TV

YouTube had 42m users in 2017 – far ahead of any other video sharing site. Increasingly YouTube is taking time from traditional TV viewing, with younger views spending over an hour a day watching it in March 2017.


SMS is suffering from instant messaging

Instant messaging is killing SMS, which is down 35% since 2011.

While there’s no sign of email falling significantly this year, it’s no longer as dominant as it was.


… And no challenger is coming close

Snapchat’s often been talked of as a Facebook killer. But it’s nowhere near yet.

Snapchat has gained over 3m new users this year but is still mainly restricted to younger users. Even in its home territory of messaging, Snapchat is a distant third, with 10m users to Facebook Messenger’s 22m and WhatsApp’s 18.2m.


Twitter isn’t dead

Twitter has gained almost a million users in the last year. While the company struggles, it continues to be a significant second-rank player, alongside properties such as Pinterest, Snapchat and LinkedIn.

Talking of which, LinkedIn appears to be in some trouble, losing 4m users this year. Given recent improvements in the app, this is one of the biggest surprises in the report.

The ‘also ran’ social networks (Unique audience, millions)

The ‘also ran’ social networks (Unique audience, millions)
CMR 2017; Rob Blackie Digital Strategy

Two trends underlie the Ofcom report…

Driving this year’s figures is the continued growth in older internet users and the increasing dominance of smartphones.


  1. Older users continue to grow fast

Most older people are now online and this figure continues to grow.  53% of over 75s are now online, as well as 78% of 65-74s.

This group, as they get more experienced, are using a wider variety of services, for more time, every day.

For instance 69% of over 54s are now using social networking, and almost half of them – 46% – are using Facebook.

54% of over 54 year olds are using WhatsApp, doubtless because of its similarity to familiar SMS services. As Facebook starts to monetise the app, there’s a huge opportunity to reach this age group via WhatsApp.

Older internet users are also increasingly users of YouTube – though currently still watch only 6 hours per month. If they start to get the YouTube habits of younger viewers, then the TV watching landscape will transform.


  1. Smartphones are now owned by 76% of people

Ownership is up 5% on the year, so smartphones are now clearly the most common way to access the internet – well ahead of laptops and tablets. Meanwhile desktops continue their slow decline, with only 11% of people considering desktops to be their most important device for internet access.


And finally the dog that didn’t bark…

The internet giants have been trying to crack mobile payment for years. While mobile payment is commonplace in China, it’s still not mainstream in the UK. Apple Pay, Android Pay and Facebook have all tried. This year it seems they’ve failed again. Only 5% of people have tried mobile payment, up 1% on the year. As to why, it seems likely that using your contactless card is simply easier, with cards now used for 30% of payments.

Ofcom’s Communications report is full of unbiased research and surprising statistics. Download it and see for yourself here.

This article originally appeared in The Drum.

Do you want to make a difference at the election?

Postal vote application form for 2017 election.


Most of my election effort will be trying to elect Lib Dems. But if you are non-party political and want to influence the election, this post is for you*.


  1. Recognise that seats matter more than votes

In the UK political system seats are all that matter in practice. You probably can’t remember what percentage of the vote Labour got in 2005. But you can almost certainly remember who was in power after the 2005 election.

So anything you want to achieve needs to influence how many MPs get elected who agree with you.


  1. Not all seats matter the same in the election

Britain’s electoral system means that most seats stay with the same party time after time.

Roughly 200 seats, out of 650, really matter.


  1. Not all votes are the same

Point 2 means that the only votes that really matter are in the marginal 200 seats.

But roughly 50% of voters always stick with the same party. Leaving only 50% of people worth trying to influence, in the 200 constituencies you are targeting.


  1. Not everyone votes

Voting is voluntary in Britain.

Even in a really high turnout election, only about 70% of people will vote.


  1. So you need to target a specific type of person

Add together points 1, 2, 3 and 4 and it means that you need to target swing voters in swing seats who might realistically vote.

Who are these people?

They are a varied bunch. But we can look at what is most typical of them.

Almost every bit of research I’ve seen says that this group is concentrated:

  • Living in the suburbs of Britain’s cities and towns. This is where the swing constituencies are. Think of suburban Leamington Spa or Derby.
  • Middle aged. Young voters tend to have very low turnout (and there aren’t enough of them). Old voters tend not to change their minds, after a lifetime of voting a particular way.
  • Not very interested in politics. In fact giving very little attention to politics day to day. This group typically make up their minds during the election campaign, often on election day. A surprisingly large number make up their minds in the voting booth.


So what?

If you want to make an impact consider if you are going be relevant to this group of voters.

If not what are you going to change?



* Psephologists will notice some significant simplifications here. For everyone else – if you seriously doubt any of these points, drop me a line and I’ll dig out sourcing.

Election 2017: Messages & Digital

Google Trends: 2017 election

Election 2017 will be a test of both messages and digital campaigning for Britain’s political parties.

Election messages

The big battle in the campaign will be to frame the election choice. There are two possible frames.

Frame 1: Leadership

In this frame public debate focuses on who would be best Prime Minister. This is probably the campaign Theresa May wants.

Theresa May will do well in this scenario. The public know her, and, largely, trust her. Jeremy Corbyn will do disastrously. Many members of the public don’t have a fixed opinion about Jeremy Corbyn. This will change after 7 weeks of Jeremy Corbyn being constantly linked to terrorism. Labour could do extremely badly.

I’m biased, but in this scenario Tim Farron has the opportunity to break through as a new voice. Tim is a clear communicator and funny. From an normal background in the north of England he’s as far as you can be from a typical member of the political class. However he’ll face the challenge of being seen as a credible Prime Minister, leading a party with just 9 MPs.

Frame 2: Brexit

In this frame the public focuses on Brexit for the length of the campaign.

Theresa May will face an opportunity to pick up a lot of pro-Brexit votes from Labour and UKIP. But she’ll also face two risks.

Firstly the Brexit focus might help UKIP. Secondly moderate Conservatives may defect to the Lib Dems in England, and the nationalists in Scotland and Wales.

Again Labour look set to do extremely badly in this scenario – losing a large proportion of their votes to either Lib Dems or Labour or nationalists.

Again I’m biased, but there’s a big Lib Dem opportunity here.

The digital election

A simple way to think about the impact of digital on the election is to consider reach and impact.


The Conservatives will have a significant advantage. They will be able to buy huge reach on Facebook and YouTube, as they did in the 2015 General Election.

Labour have a secret weapon though. Back in 2015 they had around 6 million email addresses on their database. And, whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he gets a lot of free reach on social media. While they have been relatively uninventive with their email, they have a significant, free, reach to the public. And you can assume they will raise several million pounds this way.


There is very little credible research on the impact of digital campaigning on how people vote. A lot of commentary suggests things that are simply impossible.

However reading accounts of the 2015 Conservative and Labour campaigns, the Brexit campaigns and Trump’s election here are three areas to watch:

  • Impact on marginal constituencies: How much advertising is seen by voters in marginal constituencies? This should be reasonably easy to test through polling, as Lord Ashcroft did, crudely, in the run up to May 2015.
  • Testing: A nimble political party should be able to test thousands of messages, and creative executions, quickly during an election campaign. This should, theoretically, feedback into the rest of the campaign from direct mail to speeches to traditional media.
  • Integration: Does the traditional campaign support the digital campaign? For instance do the parties promote data capture? Does the digital campaign change what the traditional campaign does?

Fake statistics – Can North Korea kill 90% of Americans?

Luckily North Korea can’t kill 90% of Americans. This number originates in an unpublished work of fiction. Literally a novel that a Congressman read. It then took on a life of its own.


Sniffing out the FBI’s secret Instagram account

If you need to investigate a company or individual online, there are a lot of tricks to find out what they are doing. A smart journalist used these to find the FBI Director’s secret Instagram account.


Twitter isn’t representative

Twitter does not predict what the general public is thinking. Even though sometimes Twitter trends coincide with everyone else. A new study compared British Twitter users to broader society’s views.  Twitter users are not a good proxy for non-users.


Facebook launching Bots for  Groups

People often forget about Facebook Groups. They’re low profile, and fairly simple. But they have over 1 billion users. Anecdotally it seems they are influential over everything from private business discussions to the hottest parties in Los Angeles.

This makes Bots for Facebook groups interesting. It will be possible to engage in a Group without being allowed in. For instance BT Sport might create a Bot with sports results for private football groups. Or a software company might create a news bot for a specialist set of customers.


What happens if you practise attacking yourself?

During New Labour’s rise in the 1990s, their media head, Alastair Campbell, had a weekly meeting devoted to attacking his own side. Looking through the eyes of his opponents made the rest of their week smarter.

On that note, it turns out the most effective ad of the Trump campaign used an old video of Michelle Obama attacking Hillary Clinton. It’s routine for political campaigns to follow their opponents everywhere, hoping to catch them off-guard. I wonder how many corporates have considered this?


Poachers turned gamekeepers?

The digital wild west lets a surprising number of former mafia-like villains, turn respectable(ish). In this case, a Russian troll factory creating content for pro-Putin and pro-Trump groups.


Can YouTube stop putting ads next to ISIS videos?

YouTube search results for Isis videos March 2017
YouTube search results for Isis videos March 2017
YouTube search results for Isis videos March 2017

YouTube are suffering some problems currently. Ads from big corporate advertisers are appearing next to content from ISIS and other extremist groups.

YouTube and the other internet giants point out that 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. So that it’s almost impossible to find bad content.

However this may be the wrong way to look at it.

There are really two ways to fix a problem like this.

Option 1: Whitelist appropriate YouTube channels

The first way is to whitelist YouTube channels that advertising appears against. For instance you get the most popular 100,000 YouTube channels and put them through a verification process that weeds out inappropriate content. Human tagging, combined with machine learning (in the literal sense), would make this expensive but not impossible.

The problem for YouTube is that they’d then have to remove, or change, advertising against all other channels. Back in 2015 there were 837,000 ad supported YouTube channels. It would be reasonable to assume that there are at least twice as many channels today.

However the, say, 1.9m channels which would not get verified are 95% of the channels, but likely only, say, 20% of the views. So YouTube would need to give up that ad inventory. Or it could sell it to less squeamish advertisers at a lower rate.

Option 2: Find inappropriate YouTube videos

The second option is messier but less costly for YouTube. It relies on the fact that people who put up ISIS videos want them to be seen. So YouTube can put human review in for any video that:

  • Isn’t from a known safe channel or user.
  • Has any tag or keyword that is risky (e.g. ‘Iraq’).
  • Has more than, say, 400 views (And so is likely to have any meaningful impact)
  • Is gaining views quickly.

Add these together and the number of videos to review drops dramatically. Get your reviewing mechanism to learn from human judgement, and you should, fairly quickly, be able to handle the problem.

YouTube/Google have some of the world’s best machine learning experts, huge budgets and good reasons to move quickly. They can fix this.

Three laws of technology hype.

Technology companies constantly hype their own processes and products. Often this hype is technically truthful, but misleading. But hype takes on a life of its own, misunderstood or exaggerated. Eventually hype leads to absurd claims. These cause real damage.

To protect yourself look at three laws of marketing hype.

Law one: Impossibility – The technology doesn’t exist or is impractical

Impossible claims are at the centre of technology hype. Or the hype focuses on things that might be technically possible, but impractical.

Mass scraping of data is usually impossible

First consider a Guardian claim about Cambridge Analytica’s work for Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

The Guardian: Impossible & nonsense claims about Facebook.
The Guardian: Impossible & nonsense claims about Facebook.

The article claims that Cambridge Analytica harvested data from people’s Facebook profiles[1].

Here’s the problem though: This is almost impossible. The vast majority of people’s Facebook data is private. This data can only be seen by their friends or if they choose to reveal it to a company.

Facebook has made it increasingly hard for companies to harvest personal data. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign did harvest vast amounts of people’s data – with their permission. But, even with Obama to motivate people, his campaign only managed to get data for 1 million voters. Subsequently Facebook made it much harder to do even this.

Of course you could try and scam your way to people’s data. You could create thousands of fake Facebook profiles. Then try to befriend all 128m American voters. Then copy their data. While this is possible on a small scale, Facebook is generally good at weeding out large scale scams like this.

[Update: The March 2018 revelations about Cambridge Analytica revealed that they did managed to get 270,000 people to use an app that harvested around 50m people’s Facebook data. This has been made impossible since April 2015 due to an API change. So while mass scraping of data is now hard – and was in the run up to the 2016 election – it was possible previously. Note that the decay rate of data quality will make a big difference to whether this data was useful in 2016]

No, Facebook doesn’t know more about you than your partner

A related example is almost any article that claims that companies know huge amounts about you. Yes, there is a lot of data, but it’s not always meaningful.

To test this visit Amazon. Then ask yourself how good their recommendations are. They’re probably ok – but not amazing. Amazon have more data to make recommendations about what to buy than virtually anyone else. Yet they struggle to get it right. To complete your personal test visit Google, Facebook and Apple’s websites. Have a look at how well personalised they are.

Why is this?

The vast majority of data is either private, anonymised or just not very useful. If you want a guide to what’s possible then have a look at the world’s best companies at selling data. Simply create an advertising account on Google. Or look at the business sections of Facebook, Amazon, Experian and Axciom.

Impracticality is closely linked to impossibility.

AI is currently going through a bubble that is often based on impracticality. Read reports on autonomous cars and you’d think every taxi driver in the world was about to lose their job. Then look at Uber’s current testing, which recently leaked, and you’ll find that humans had to take over the driving every 0.8 miles on average. That’s a long way from a technology that is going to satisfy regulators and insurance companies.

Illegal is also impossible

A final angle on impossibility is the law. Is the technology legal? And does it comply with relevant social network policies? Data protection laws, and discrimination laws, might simply make it illegal. And if a company scrapes millions of people’s data from Facebook they can expect to be sued.


Law two: Value – New technology isn’t worth the effort

New technology might be practical and legal. But it often isn’t worth the effort compared to easier and cheaper approaches.

There are lots of simple ways to improve digital campaigns, because they are simple to test. It’s common for testing to increase the effectiveness of a campaign by 10-20%, quickly and at low cost. So the second law is that technology may not be a better use of your time than simpler alternatives.

Another way to look at this law is to ask if you have exhausted your current testing programme. Have you got the right strategic choices? Are you using the right channels, for the right purposes? Have you optimised your customer journey, from acquisition to conversion? Is your creative optimised?

Most organisations have many areas where they can become more effective without needing cutting-edge technology. For instance digital content programmes can routinely become 20-40% more efficient.

Even tech companies don’t always use cutting edge technologies

I recently reviewed the digital marketing programmes of five of the world’s leading marketing automation providers. If anyone is going to be using cutting edge technology, it’s this group. Yet all of them fail on at least one basic measure. Several have very poor quality email programmes, with virtually no personalisation. Some of them don’t re-market to people who visit their website. Their websites are generic even when they know something about you.

Why is this? Some of it is inertia. But it also reflects a judgement that new technology isn’t worth the effort of implementing it.

Apply the second law to claims that people can predict the future (e.g. the X-Factor). You could try through social listening but that’s hard to get right. It’s easier, and probably cheaper, to commission a traditional poll.


Law three: Reach – Technology doesn’t reach enough people to work

A valuable technology has to reach, and influence, enough people to justify its cost. Reach comes down to two things:

  • Penetration – What proportion of the target audience encounter your technology?
  • Time use – How long do your audience spend with the technology?

The problem with anything new is that not many people use it. By definition. So there needs to be a route for it to penetrate its market.

This can sometimes happen organically. But most of the time this needs time and marketing.

Apply the third law to VR discussion and something becomes clear. Most VR won’t get to enough people to make a difference. Why? Because there’s no distribution system for it, unless it’s through Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon.

What is the most hyped technology?

Look at the three laws and what areas of technology look overhyped currently?

  • Not enough reach, and not much evidence of impact in many cases.
  • AI that’s implied to be fully automated. If you re-cast these claims as ‘software tools making people smarter’ then there are plenty of sensible cases. But implying that you have an artificial intelligence, when you just have programmatic media buying, you’re pulling a con.
  • Almost all discussions of Social media that don’t mention reach.
  • ‘Data science’ that claims to know people better than they know themselves.



[1] There’s also a claim that Cambridge Analytica used ‘machine learning to “spread” through their networks’. This is a confused claim, that might charitably be read to mean that Cambridge Analytica used machine learning to understand what content was most liable to be shared on social media.