The Big Read: Advertising in the age of Misinformation – Part I - Praxis
The Big Read: Advertising in the age of Misinformation – Part I

The Big Read: Advertising in the age of Misinformation – Part I

The $600 billion digital advertising industry still lacks necessary scrutiny and moderation. This opacity needs to be tackled head-first. Here’s the first part that explains its roots

The global digital advertising industry, currently estimated at a staggering $600 billion, is a continuously expanding behemoth. While major players like Facebook and other social media platforms serve as popular advertising avenues, a significant portion of the internet’s ad spending is allocated across a myriad of websites and applications.

However, there’s a disconcerting lack of oversight and moderation in this vast digital ad landscape, which is predominantly monetised by AdTech companies. As a result, many advertisers remain oblivious to the precise destinations of their ads, unwittingly endorsing platforms that propagate misinformation and hate speech.

In an era where consumers increasingly make purchasing decisions based on personal values and brand affiliations, this poses a severe reputational risk. To confront this pressing issue, companies must embrace a tripartite approach: conducting comprehensive ad campaign audits, minimising dependency on brand safety technology, and insisting on cash refunds.

The roots of opacity

One might assume that their company’s advertising budget is entirely untainted by disinformation. After all, renowned brands generally do not intend to associate their advertisements with conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, or troll farms. However, this is far from a guarantee. Without regular assessments of programmatic ad acquisitions or direct collaboration with the platforms they wish to advertise on, brands inadvertently contribute to the propagation of disinformation.

The digital advertising industry predominantly operates through the “open web,” encompassing millions of websites and apps that are discoverable via search engines like Google. Unfortunately, these web destinations often lack the necessary scrutiny and moderation, rendering the advertising landscape opaque for marketers.

The roots of this opacity can be traced back to trade-offs made by marketers over the past decade. These trade-offs were motivated by the allure of programmatic advertising, which promised greater scalability, broader reach, and reduced costs. As advertisers relinquished their day-to-day operations to a labyrinthine digital advertising supply chain, intermediaries emerged as custodians of vital campaign data. Regrettably, these intermediaries often withhold critical data, leaving advertisers in the dark. This presents a profound reputational hazard at a time when consumers increasingly tie their purchasing decisions to their personal values and brand preferences.

For advertisers to regain control over their advertising strategies, they must demand unrestricted access to granular data from third-party ad exchanges. This should be coupled with rigorous ad campaign audits and a re-evaluation of their choice of advertising platforms. Failure to take these steps will perpetuate the brand’s exposure to reputational risks and continue funnelling funds to those who benefit most from the dissemination of disinformation.

The Global Disinformation Crisis and Its Link to AdTech

The absence of adequate oversight and accountability within the digital advertising landscape has left advertisers in the dark concerning the precise placement of their ads. Additionally, this environment has inadvertently nurtured a thriving industry for individuals involved in the dissemination of disinformation and fraudulent content. The World Federation of Advertisers has projected that digital advertising could soon become the second-largest income source for organised crime, trailing only the drug trade.

Digital advertising not only provides financial gains to malicious actors but also equips them with a potent toolkit for manipulating public opinion. At the helm of the Check My Ads Institute, Claire Atkin, the co-founder, recognises this as a triple threat: disinformation thrives on a trifecta of money, advertisements, and data. Ad revenue serves as the lifeblood for propagandists, amplifying their campaigns across the web’s content networks. Data empowers these propagandists to construct detailed user profiles, facilitating precise targeting of individuals susceptible to falsehoods and bigotry. Additionally, ads, especially those from well-established advertisers, inadvertently confer a veneer of legitimacy to disinformation outlets.

This unsustainable business model, perpetuated by unwitting advertisers, exposes brands to the unanticipated consequences of misplaced advertisements, leading to public relations crises. One such incident occurred in 2021 when Warby Parker discovered its sponsorship of the Daily Wire, a platform known for promoting harassment and bullying targeting transgender individuals. Another example surfaced in August 2022 when Check My Ads identified advertisements from prominent household brands during commercial breaks on Steve Bannon’s War Room live stream show, a platform that has openly endorsed extreme views.

Part 2 will discuss the digital advertising industry landscape and how advertisers must adopt a proactive stance to reclaim their data.


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