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Who Funds Fake News?

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 ads next to Zuckerberg post about fake news
Clickbait and switch ads next to Facebook’s post about ad hoaxes (Credit: Doc Searls Weblog)

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.

Adtech detection

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:

NewsGuard trust rating, score, and criteria
MBFC factual-reporting level
  1. Advertising, to display ads on a site.
  2. 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).

Adtech ProductIffyTop 1M
Google DoubleClick.Net338461,624
Google Google Adsense248174,770
Google Google AdSense Integrator230149,945
Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Ads.txt225119,944
Google Google Direct207114,676
Google Google Adsense Asynchronous189131,641
Rubicon Projct RubiconProject Reseller18239,009
AppNexus AppNexus Reseller18042,756
SpotXChange SpotXChange Reseller17237,738
OpenX OpenX Reseller17242,566
PubMatic PubMatic Reseller17138,403
AOL AOL Reseller16635,952
AppNexus AppNexus16354,043
Google Google Reseller16239,559
RubiconProject RubiconProject Direct15031,686
IndexExchange IndexExchange Reseller15035,485
ContextWeb ContextWeb Reseller14932,499
Tremor Video Tremor Video Reseller14628,287
FreeWheel FreeWheel Reseller14130,864
RhythmOne RhythmOne Reseller13932,845
DistrictM DistrictM Reseller13332,125
LKQD LKQD Reseller12830,397
AppNexus AppNexus Direct12629,517
IndexExchange IndexExchange Direct12629,388
IponWeb BidSwitch IponWeb BidSwitch12429,376
OpenX OpenX Direct12330,189
The Trade Desk The Trade Desk12251,333
Rubicon Project Rubicon Project12155,344
DistrictM DistrictM Direct1219,484
Sovrn Sovrn Reseller11924,287
GumGum GumGum Reseller11824,727
SmartAdServer SmartAdServer Reseller11726,189
PubMatic PubMatic11651,253
Google Google Publisher Tag11640,941
Sovrn Sovrn Direct11627,324
Taboola Taboola11327,144
Lijit Lijit Direct11326,981
Improve Improve Digital Reseller11223,479
PubMatic PubMatic Direct11229,354
Index Exchange Index Exchange11150,987
Amazon Amazon Direct10926,541
RhythmOne RhythmOne Direct10922,458
Beachfront Beachfront Reseller10617,997
Tapad Tapad10532,062
ORC International ORC International Reseller10520,745
Comet Cox Comet Cox Media Reseller10519,529
Facebook Facebook Custom Audiences99184,246
Advertising.com Advertising.com9829,440
Revcontent Revcontent Direct977,108
Media.net Media.net Direct9619,620

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.

Chart of adtech payments to disinformation sites (GDI, 2019)

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).

Adtech TrackingIffyTop 1M
Google Google Analytics412626,836
Google Google Universal Analytics359531,152
Global Site Tag Global Site Tag177231,243
Facebook Facebook Domain Insights17596,390
Quantcast Quantcast Measurement13347,922
comScore comScore12234,589
Rapleaf Rapleaf12155,970
Google Google Analytics Classic121133,702
Everest Technologies Everest Technologies11043,974
MediaMath MediaMath10831,731
LiveRamp LiveRamp10237,904
Facebook Facebook Pixel101186,422
Facebook Facebook Conversion Tracking100156,021
Lotame Lotame Crowd Control9937,456
Facebook Facebook Signal87168,541
Dotomi Dotomi7818,949
OwnerIQ OwnerIQ6313,275
Moat Moat5739,917
IgnitionOne IgnitionOne5210,826
Netmining Netmining5211,048
Google Google Analytics with Ad Tracking4912,087
Yahoo Yahoo Web Analytics4319,654
33 Across 33 Across418,674
Tynt Tynt Tracer3911,529
New Relic New Relic3454,477
Krux Digital Krux Digital2914,853
Google Google Analytics Event Tracking2633,419
Google Google Conversion Tracking23129,207
Alexa Alexa Metrics2211,284
Alexa Alexa Certified Site Metrics2211,111
Efficient-Frontier Efficient Frontier2215,430
Cloud Technologies Cloud Technologies223,275
Matomo Matomo2113,392
Fastly Fastly2019,974
Gemius PL Gemius PL2015,456
Gemius Gemius2015,553
Google Google Analytics Enhanced Link Attribution1932,930
StatCounter StatCounter1611,989
Hotjar Hotjar1449,362
Facebook Facebook Pixel View Content144,380
Google DoubleClick Floodlight1428,000
Google Google Optimize 3601325,644
Dynamic Yield Dynamic Yield131,777
Cloudflare Cloudflare Insights127,561
Throtle Throtle113,520
Google Google AdWords Conversion1181,863
Dynatrace Dynatrace106,014
Google Google Analytics IP Anonymization1011,939
Yandex Yandex Metrika1066,863
Distil Distil Bot Discovery101,514

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.

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