The founder of Taboola reveals how his platform will prevent fake news from influencing elections

The guy behind the “recommended for you” boxes on websites has raised over $160m. Now he wants to halt digital untruths from spreading and give future founders two important pieces of advice

The founder of Taboola reveals how his platform will prevent fake news from influencing elections

You know those little boxes at the bottom of webpages, the ones that recommend stories from around the web especially tailored for you? The guy who came up with them is named Adam Singolda and he’s the founder and CEO of Taboola. Having launched the scaleup in 2007, it’s now responsible for one of the most common features on the internet. “Today, Taboola is used by thousands of companies to empower over a billion people worldwide to discover what’s interesting and new at the moment they’re ready to experience new things,” Singolda tells Elite Business. “In doing so, we partner with companies to attract, and strengthen, their customer relationships.”

But while the adtech business has raised over $160m across seven funding rounds, the scaleup has also been accused of empowering originators of fake news to spread their untruths across his platform. 

Given the impact Taboola has already had, its origin story begins with a common but surprisingly and almost mundane problem – not being able to find something to watch on the telly. Singolda experienced this exact situation the day he began thinking about what would become his business. “[And] I thought that I should not be looking for TV shows but rather TV shows should be looking for me,” the founder remembers. “The idea behind Taboola was to create a software that would help consumers discover things that they may like and never knew existed, wherever they may be – to go after that ‘moment of next’ where people are predisposed to discover something new and interesting that is relevant for them.” Armed with the idea, he launched his startup in 2007.

But his journey wasn’t without obstacles to overcome. “The first few years are the hardest for any new business as you look for product market fit and usually require the most perseverance to get off the ground,” Singolda says. Having began considering the problem in front of his TV, Singolda for a while focused on the video market. Fortunately, he soon recognised that it was the wrong format for Taboola. “It was only as we evolved from video to articles, galleries, product and other types of recommendations that we were able to grow our unique technology and scale it everywhere,” he remembers. 

Thanks to this pivot and the support of its investors, Taboola is still here. “Now we are more than 11 years into our journey  and we recently celebrated 1,000 people working at Taboola around the world,” Singolda says.

However, the past few years have seen the company facing a new challenge – fake news. From influencing elections to instigating massacres around the world, the spread of digital untruths have played a significant part in the public space over the past four years. In the UK, verified lies like Boris Johnson’s bright red bus claiming £350m a week went to the EU, money that the Vote Leave campaigner argued should go to the NHS instead, were paired up with an avalanche of online ads claiming things like that the EU were proposing a ban on tea. Those adverts were seen over 169 million times. On Twitter, a proverbial army of Russian trolls sent over ten million tweets linked to fake news on the day of the referendum, according to data released by the social network

For Taboola, the rise of fake news represents a problem. The stories shared by the company and its biggest competitor Outbrain have been criticised for being clickbait-y at best and allegedly shady and untrue at worst.

When asked about this criticism, Singolda answers that “fake news can not and will not be tolerated on the Taboola network”. However, he adds that it is important to define what fake news is, as Taboola does not wish to inhibit freedom of speech – “for me, fake news is the idea whereby a piece of content is written to intentionally deceive consumers to believe something that is not true – whether for commercial, political or other reasons. The intent is to deceive consumers into believing that they are reading fact-based news or editorial content, when in fact it is truthless propaganda or an advertisement. We’ve also made our policies public so that people can see where we draw the line and how we enforce it across our network. I also blogged about the unintended risk of shaming people  for no good reason and risking freedom of speech.”

Singolda adds that Taboola has partnered up with several organisations to avoid or at least halt the rise of digital untruths. These organisations include the Trustworthy Accountability Group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe, the Coalition for Better Ads, the Future of Privacy Forum, the Digital Advertising Alliance and the Network Advertising Initiative

Moreover, Taboola is also taking steps to ensure future elections – like the European Parliament election in May and the US Presidential Election next year – aren’t influenced by fake news spread via its services.“Each piece of content distributed on Taboola is manually reviewed, categorised and approved by humans as opposed to machines, no sponsored content goes on the Taboola network before someone reviews it,” Singolda says. 

Looking at future founders, he offers two pieces of advice. “[Firstly, choose] a market [that’s] big enough as it’s very likely that you and your product will evolve over time,” Singolda advises. “It’s important that as your product or service evolves, it can also become big enough as a company and business. Most of the companies you know today do different things than what they were doing when they started out.”

His second piece of advice is to remember that your success is dependent on people. “If you have to bet, bet on people, “ Singolda continues. “Surround yourself with people who will push your journey forward and can together, co-write the story of your company and build the right culture that can last forever. We have a culture we refer to as the “Economy Of Good Enough.” We believe that it’s okay for people to make mistakes as long as you make them fast and move on and learn.”

While it’s clear Taboola has quite a challenge on its hands when it comes to fake news, it’s encouraging that Singolda seems to be putting people first. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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