In a paper to be presented tomorrow at the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, University of Michigan School of Information researchers Lia Bozarth and Ceren Budak find that hundreds of fake news sites are “surprisingly dependent on top credible ad firms,” including Google’s Doubleclick. The study, Market Forces: Quantifying the Role of Top Credible Ad Servers in the Fake News Ecosystem, finds that 48% of all ad traffic on “fake” news sites are served by Google, while 32% of ads served on “low quality” sites rely on the firm.
The study uses a list of misleading sites assembled in 2018 by Melissa Zimdars, a critical media studies scholar at Merrimack College, analyzing the advertising on them. For instance, the authors look at Real News Right Now, a site that features headlines such as “Secret Service Begins Construction of ‘Security Moat’ Along White House Perimeter”, “Scientists Say a Tribe of Apes in West Africa is Close to Developing Their Own Internet”, and “McConnell to Co-sponsor Bill Aimed at Restricting Voting Rights to Landowners.” The analysis suggests “approximately 33.3% of ads” on the site are served by DoubleClick.
The study concludes that ad tech giants- including Google, but also other major players such as MGID, Lockerdome, Yandex, Pubmatic, and Outbrain- are earning relatively negligible revenues from problematic sites, but are still “responsible for delivering a substantial fraction of ads on fake and low-quality news sites,” and therefore represent a point of leverage to reduce the economic incentives for mis- and disinformation.
The study confirms observations by journalists such as BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, and adds to the case that interventions aimed at reducing the market incentives for mis-and disinformation can be effective. Activist organizations such as Sleeping Giants have targeted disinformation purveyors by demanding that advertisers refuse to support them through programmatic exchanges and networks- and as the researchers note, many of the sites compiled by Zimdars in 2018 no longer exist.
In a separate recent paper in the Journal of Quantitative Description, An Analysis of the Partnership between Retailers and Low-credibility News Publishers, Bozarth and Budak find that Amazon.com has “the highest advertising frequency on low-credibility news sites,” joining donaldjtrump.com, americanexpress.com and menswearhouse.com among the top retailers. A substantial proportion of the Amazon ads in the observed set were served on prepperwebsite.com, “a low-credibility news site that advertises many survival-related supplies”. Presently the site aggregates hundreds of links, from “Conspiracy Galore- Get Your Tinfoil Hats Ready”, an aggregation of various conspiracy theory news; to “How Much Water Does A Duck Drink Each Day”.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.