Fake news is a for-profit business. It’s the latest version in a long line of online con jobs, preying on people’s weaknesses.
Take things like false news. You know, a lot of it is really spam, if you think about it. It’s the same people who might have been sending you Viagra emails in the ’90s, now they’re trying to come up with sensational content and push it into Facebook and other apps in order to get you to click on it and see ads.Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO
The digital duopoly, Facebook and Google, both profit from fraudulent advertising. Might that partly explain why they’ve tried and failed numerous times to stop the viral spread of misinformation?
The world of digital advertising is a nightmarish joke. In Mark Zuckerberg’s first post about fake news, Facebook managed to serve an ad for fake news next to it.Mark Thompson, New York Times CEO
The NYT exec was referring to a November 2016 post (screenshot below captured by Doc Searls) illustrating Facebook’s inability to stop ad fraud, even on Facebook. Right next to their CEO’s apology were two clickbait and switch links. Both appeared to be ESPN.com articles. Instead, both linked a diet supplement article at a fraud site (espn.com-magazines.online, now defunct).
Fake-news revenue comes mostly from advertising technology companies, a.k.a., adtech. Advertisers pay adtech agencies to programmatically bid on website ad spaces. An instantaneous, automated auction happens milliseconds before an ad displays: The highest bids get the spaces. Then the agencies pay the publishers (the website owner.) The process is convoluted and hackable: Microsoft, Citigroup, and IBM ads end up next to Jihadi terrorist videos. Small business owners inadvertently fund neo-nazi sites.
So which adtech firms fund fake-news?
To find out I compiled a list of untrustworthy sites, with either a low MBFC factual-reporting level or a failing NewsGuard score. Then I ran each site through BuiltWith’s tech-detecting tool to find out which sites use which of these two types of ad technologies:
- Advertising, to display ads on a site.
- Analytics and Tracking, to gather data about site visitors.
Of the 510 active untrustworthy sites, BuiltWith detected adtech-tracking scripts on 442 sites and adtech-advertising scripts on 392. Here are the adtech products that fill the fake-news coffers.
Fake news top-50: Advertising adtech
Number of the 392 ad-supported unreliable news sites, aka, Iffy, and of the Top 1M sites that use these adtech-advertising products (linked to BuiltWith technology usage statistics).
Google is guilty of seven of the top-50 techs that flood fake-news sites with ad dollars. A Global Disinformation Index study (2019-09) found Google was the main monetizer of mis/disinformation, an estimated US$87M per year.
A marketer can’t easily prevent their ads from running on fake-news sites (and thus financing fake-news publishers). The advertiser could send the adtech firm a blocklist of unwanted domain names. But owners of these sketchy sites often take them down quickly, e.g., when discovered as fraudulent, then, just as quickly, spin up another fraud site at another domain name. So even blocklists can’t keep up with the whac-a-mole nature of online fake news.
Fake news top-50: Analytics and Tracking
Number of the 442 unreliable news sites, aka, Iffy, and of the Top 1M sites that use these adtech-analytics/tracking products (linked to BuiltWith technology usage statistics).
Of the top-50 ways fake-news sites track you, fifteen are Google (11) and Facebook (4) products. They know what you did last summer. They’re betting billions on guessing what you’ll do next summer.
Because of NewsGuard restrictions, I’m not allowed to publicly release the raw data. So don’t trust me: Run your own tests.