Flaws in Ad Tech Contribute to False Perceptions of Brand Safety, Ad Blocking, and Disinformation

Disinformation and trust in news were key drivers of the tragic riots that took place on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. The violence that took place targeted journalists as well as Congress, which makes the reporting, photographs and video that came out of the Capitol that day even more vital. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who chose to keep the rest of the world informed.

But as the crisis unfolded, advertisers paused many of their online ads, including those running alongside news content, a practice that ramped up in 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the social justice protests. It is understandable that brands would pause ads in order not to appear insensitive, but advertisers’ continued fear of bad news events is having a negative impact on publishers beyond social and digital media and can be linked to the spread of violent, dangerous disinformation and lies.

In 2020, audience numbers for news about the pandemic, social justice protests and U.S. elections reached record heights. However, these increases in readership did not translate to an influx of advertising revenue for news publishers or provide solutions to key problems facing the news industry. On the contrary, a recent analysis identified previously undiscovered flaws in the ad-tech ecosystem, providing evidence that the way advertisers currently attempt to reach consumers online has even more problems than previously known. If not addressed, those flaws will continue to harm providers of high-quality journalism.

The new research, conducted by Dr. Krzysztof Franaszek of Adalytics and reported in the newsletter BRANDED, shows how companies in the brand safety space classify news articles via keyword blocklists. Franaszek was able to access this information easily, and the safety ratings used by the company were unencrypted. As BRANDED explains:

It appears that brand safety technology cannot tell the difference between actual offensive content and journalists reporting on the issues to inform the public. Franaszek’s data shows us that Oracle has aggressively blocked the news.

Grapeshot marked nearly one-third (30.3 percent) of The New York Times’ articles as unsafe.

Moat marked one-fifth (21.4 percent) of The Economist’s articles as unsafe, including an article about molecular cells which was likely classified under “Death Injury, or Military Conflict” because it mentioned “programmed cell death.”

Grapeshot marked more than half (51.7 percent) of the articles on Vice.com as brand unsafe (For context, Oracle claims they helped Vice “tackle keyword bias” last year.)

Through its subsidiaries, Oracle, one of the leading providers of brand safety, is plainly telling advertisers’ tech systems that their ads should not appear on a plurality of articles on global news publishers’ sites, even when the content does not violate any major tenets of brand safety.

In 2020, news publishers called on advertisers and brand safety companies to ensure that their pandemic coverage would not be blocked as they continued to share vital information with their readers while facing a massive economic downturn. In a joint statement by the News Media Alliance and Digital Content Next in April, they explain:

Fact-based, reliable journalism supports the online ecosystem by providing readers with invaluable information and advertisers with high-quality content and access to these readers. Keyword blocking threatens this symbiotic relationship at the worst possible time.

Now it seems that ad tech is more of a threat than we knew in 2020, and there are some disastrous implications. If trustworthy publishers continue to have their content blocked by the ad-tech middlemen and continue to struggle financially, it will allow bad actors that are spreading mis- and disinformation to continue to put lives at risk. On January 14, trust rating company NewsGuard released data showing that more than 1,600 brands ran ads on sites that shared election misinformation between October and January. These brands, including Harvard University, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and Progressive Insurance certainly would not have intended for their ads to appear near content suggesting that the CIA rigged voting machines or that Dr. Anthony Fauci will profit from the COVID-19 vaccine. But this is the consequence when brand safety technology blocks real news while allowing bad actors to evade the system. And with advertising expected to rebound in 2021, the ad-tech platforms are going to take an even bigger cut of the money that should go to publishers, and bad information will continue to run rampant.

The blunt instrument of keyword blocking harms news publishers, while the system’s lack of accountability and transparency wastes advertisers’ money. The only winners in this rigged game are the ad-tech companies themselves, which benefit while others suffer. Given the relationship between disinformation and the bloodshed of the January 6 insurrection, our society should be doing all it can to support the types of journalists who would risk everything to keep the public informed. That means advertisers need to do their part, too. If we want to ensure that high-quality journalism has a strong survival rate, we need advertisers to support the industry by trusting our content and by allowing us to earn the revenue we need in order to continue producing the news the public needs.

VP, Research & Insights at News Media Alliance twitter.com/frankrebecca

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