It is common knowledge that websites regularly collect specific user data online which then often goes to advertisement placement. Programmatic advertising is the means of such a process, and more and more companies are becoming aware that it may not be the best for their public reputation. Essentially, programmatic advertising is the process of placing advertisements on a website being viewed by an internet user based off of the users view history and data. Some websites and even pages on social media have been seen to take advantage of programmatic advertising and the revenue it brings in as an economic incentive on sites such as YouTube and Facebook. It is also problematic in that of its application and room for error when it comes to where these advertisements are placed on the internet. Several companies and organizations have begun to combat this in particular ways such as searching for alternative ways to get ad placements, being more transparent with how they are placing advertisements, and raising awareness about websites that aren’t safe to affiliate with. Digital marketers and branding companies argue that programmatic advertising is beneficial in helping consumers engage with advertisements that interest them; however, because these advertisements often end up on dubious sites. I want to suggest that programmatic advertising as an online marketing strategy is fueling the monetization of fake news, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
In order to understand the most important way to combat programmatic advertising, you should know how it functions. Programmatic advertising is often managed by ad tech firms such as Xaxis, the largest ad tech management company in the world. On top of this, all of the finance for what ad is placed is determined in seconds, based on the viewing history of users. This can display a level of the internet that is very authoritative and economy based. It is also important to note that Suzzanne Vranica makes the point in her Wall Street Journal article that “marketers don’t fully control whether their ads will show up in places they would rather avoid: sites featuring pornography, pirated content, fake news, videos supporting terrorists, or outlets whose traffic is artificially generated by computer programs”(Vranica). This is important in that even the most powerful companies still don’t decide where their advertisements land. This is problematic because of the possible combinations of companies and websites, with some companies being advertised next to hate speech on far right or far left political websites. But, to give a more relatable example, Chris Drago, who is the senior director of Global Media, a media holding and post production company, has said “We needed to make sure our ads are showing up where our ads make contextual sense, I don’t want to be on Victoria’s Secret because someone is there buying bras for his wife.”(Vranica). Such odd placement is common and showcases the mindset that lots of big name companies share when they see their advertisements on inappropriate websites, some that include biased or disturbing content. As a whole, the problems seem to be adding up for programmatic advertising where at one time it seemed like a good idea.
No matter the solutions being sought out by companies and big organizations such as Sleeping Giants, the main goal is to find the most detrimental factor of programmatic advertising and putting a stop to it. In this case, it is the spread of fake news to gain revenue from advertisements. This also goes along with my previous example with Chris Drago from Global Media in that as well as disturbing or biased content, nobody wants to be sponsored right next to fake news.
This is very prevalent in a situation concerning a Facebook Page turned news source, Mad World News. Their story is explored in the podcast “The Daily” which is produced by The New York Times. In it, married couple Cristy and Corey Pepple go into describing how Mad World News started as a hobby for Corey and eventually turning into a source of income with the amount of ad revenue it began to pull in due to Corey’s page blowing up at the right place at the right time. Eventually, they exploited the algorithm of Facebook that shows similar posts and combined it with clickbait and fake news headlines. After this, it is apparent that the Pepples were not the victims in this scenario and were motivated by money rather than the sole idea of spreading ethical news. It is evident when considering that Roose estimated that every twenty million views they would be paid around $126,000 a month to produce and spread fake news, with big name advertisements next to it.
Facebook has claimed that they have taken countermeasures to combat this problem. They claim that they are“better identifying false news through our community and third-party fact-checking organizations so that we can limit its spread, which, in turn, makes it uneconomical” as well as “Making it as difficult as possible for people posting false news to buy ads on our platform through strict enforcement of our policies”(Facebook). This policy successfully deterred fake news sources like Mad World News who gained a lot of capital from ads, and this was because their viewer base went down. This is exemplified in the rest of the podcast regarding the Pepples situation in which it should be noted that their viewer count went down exponentially, and that the situation “hit mad world news pretty hard I mean most days they’re not in the top ten they’re not even in the top twenty”(Roose). Overall, this solidifies that Facebook’s new algorithm has been successful to an extent. As a whole, situations such as the ones regarding Global Media and Facebook are all direct responses to programmatic advertising in that of its exploitation.
Though it appears that Facebook just swooped in and saved the day, there is still programmatic advertising left on the internet. Despite the fact that Vranica says “Brands are cutting down their purchase of ads through open exchanges—public pools of ad space from hundreds of thousands of sites—opting instead for methods that give them more visibility into where ads are appearing”. This suggests that though companies are getting rid of it and outsourcing, there are still companies still blindly use it to this day. There are multi-million dollar organizations built around maintaining programmatic advertising such as Xaxis as mentioned earlier. At the end of the day, the root of the problem is largely the potential to make money this easily. Youtube convoluted their own system as mentioned in Dead Reckoning. THe authors mention that “ YouTube enforces ‘community guidelines’ to demonetize videos that do not adhere to their advertising-friendly guidelines”, which include hateful content but also videos that report on it or talk about sensitive issues and controversial events, which is a whole new group of people being suppressed in the attempt to block out fake news from gaining ad revenue.
In the end, the economic incentive side of fake news is a driving force in what we see in the media. Although programmatic advertising still exists, it is slowly being phased out as the proper way to place advertisements on the internet because of the fact it is so easy to have an ad placed next to content that the company would not approve of. The exploitation of social media to make massive amounts of money off of programmatic advertising is clear, as exemplified by Chris Drago from Global Media along with the Pepple’s facebook page Mad World News. In the end, the strategy of destroying economic incentives with programmatic advertising is what will eventually lead to the halting of fake news.