Let’s say you’re a reasonable person who’s reasonably angry with Fox News’ handling of the news. Maybe it’s the way its hosts actively spewed dangerous lies at the heigh of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the way they continue to shamelessly spin the story of the January 6 insurrection. Either way, you’re mad, and you want to do something about it. But where do you start?
One nonprofit group offered a pretty straightforward solution this week with a new campaign aimed at the ad dollars keeping the broadcaster in business. While we’ve already seen protestors swarm the network’s advertisers in attempts to get them to pull their budgets from the broadcaster, this group is asking people to take a slightly different approach: targeting the adtech companies responsible for funneling those dollars into Fox’s pockets in the first place. It’s hoping it can convince the digital middlemen, known as ad exchanges, to drop Fox, too.
“We’re kicking off by focusing on many of the same exchanges we previously contacted over their ties to various insurrectionists,” Claire Atkin, one of the groups’ co-founders, told Gizmodo. She noted that while some of the exchanges—Yahoo is among the group’s targets—cut off ad-dollar access to digital properties from Steve Bannon, they remain tethered to Fox News’s site.
It’s an unusual approach, to be sure. But it’s also one that works; since the start of this year, Check My Ads—the group behind this new campaign—has successfully called for the public to put the heat on the adtech middlemen responsible for pouring cash into the pockets of noted conservative blowhards like Steve Bannon, Dan Bongino, and Tim Pool.
Thanks to the mind-numbing complexity and the digital ads ecosystem, Check My Ads’ previous efforts have become one of the first times some of these companies have been forced into the spotlight—and they’ve responded by quietly cutting ties at a pretty steady pace, according to ongoing updates from the group’s website.
“We want to know: Why Bannon and not Fox News?,” she said. (Yahoo hasn’t responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment about the campaign).
Fox News told NPR in response to the campaign, “There’s no greater threat to democracy than the effort to silence free speech.”
By focusing on ad exchanges, the campaign also takes aim at an ethical grey area. The byzantine process by which ads are placed on website often involves so many steps of algorithmic decision-making that both advertisers and exchanges abdicate responsibility for where the ads end up despite brand safety standards.
The standard playbook for adtech actors, according to Nandini Jammi, the other co-founder behind Check My Ads, is “basically playing roulette with their clients’ brand safety requirements.”
Ad exchanges and other middlemen know outsiders can’t make heads or tails of this world either, she went on. “We ultimately want to educate the American public on the entire behind-the-scenes digital advertising supply chain that fuels Fox News’s online operations,” she said.
Traditionally, the line that gets drawn between “okay for advertising” and “absolutely not” is one that’s drawn by the brand that appears onscreen. “Advertisers don’t want their ads running in places that reflect poorly on their brands,” explained Jammi. So when someone like Tucker Carlson offers his hot take on George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, brands will quickly yank their dollars from the broadcaster en masse as a way to show that The Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Stand With Racism, or that T-Mobile Doesn’t Stand With Racism, or—you get the idea. On-air ads are also where the vast majority of the money is for Fox News: According to NPR, Fox takes in 95% of its revenue from its cable operation.
Online advertising is a bit different. While a brand like Papa John’s might have a direct relationship with a major broadcaster, it’s typically not feasible to hand-pick which individual websites display ads for its hot, cheesy products. The internet’s just too goddamn big and full of too many goddamn pizza lovers to figure out where to best target them. Instead, that decision gets outsourced to a dizzying sprawl of intermediaries, all tasked—in some way or another—with putting the right pizza ad on the website being visited by the right pizza lover at the right time.
Ad exchanges are part of that equation. Their job, essentially, is to act like an open-air marketplace, but for ad slots: websites algorithmically offer up available ad space on the exchange, marketers algorithmically snatch up whichever one’s the best bang for their buck, and said buck ends up in the website’s pocket. And most of the time, a given site will be plugging into multiple exchanges at a time, in order to get the highest possible offer for their ad real estate—and marketers will browse multiple exchanges in order to find the cheapest deals.
On paper, at least, this should all make online advertising efficient: there are billions of ad slots from millions of sites flowing through hundreds of thousands of these exchanges every day. It also makes it effectively impossible for an advertiser to predict where their ad and their money might end up.
“I think marketers genuinely care about what their customers think and they really do want to make decisions that reflect their values,” Jammi said. But when they’re depending on a slurry of automated tech to reflect those values, things become a bit more complicated.
While there’s a good number of marketers grappling with the weight of what they do or don’t fund online, the bang-for-your buck principle still applies. Typically, these bucks are measured in what’s known as “Cost Per Mille,” or CPM’s, for short. This is the amount a marketer would need to pay a publisher for every thousand sets of eyeballs—or “impressions”—that land on that ad.
In a (very, very) brief nutshell, you can think of ad exchanges as the referees of the attention economy. On one end, you have an advertiser for, say, a Papa John’s knock-off, feeding in details about the types of ads it’s serving (cheesy), the type of audience it’s looking to target (cheese lovers), and the highest CPM they’re willing to pay to reach that audience across different sorts of sites.
On the other side, you have the hundreds (or thousands, or tens of thousands) of news sites, porn providers, recipe blogs, and content mills that exchange might be working with. Every time someone stumbles onto a page from one of these sites, any ad slots onscreen are broadcasting a dizzying amount of data about users back to the exchange, too: about them, their device, the site they’re looking at, and so on. If that data suggests this visitor might be in the potential pizza market—and the price is right—that person gets an ad for a cheesy slice next to the reporting (or porn, or cookie instructions) that’s open on their screen.
Faced with the responsibility of stewarding the hundreds of billions of dollars in digital ad spend every year—and pocketing a significant chunk of that themselves — exchanges have, by and large, made the collective decision to Let The Algorithm Sort It Out. As one such company, Xandr (previously named AppNexus,) put it in a 2017 research study: “While we’re committed to being a non-partisan, open ad tech platform, we also want to make sure we’re not allowing bad actors to sell inventory with us.” The best way to weed out the bad apples, of course, is algorithmically—picking apart “non-ideological factors” like unusual traffic patterns to suggest that something suspicious might be going on, it said. It also noted that it follows “strict platform rules,” barring any sites promoting “hate speech, deceptive acts in commerce, and graphic violence,” from getting ad dollars through its pipes. Any exchange worth its salt will have some sort of standards like these, both to cover its ass legally and to keep advertisers happy (or at least happy enough to keep spending money to use their exchange).
But again, there’s literally hundreds of thousands of these companies. That means hundreds of thousands of ways to define what is and isn’t misinformation—if they bother keeping track of misinformation at all.
“I don’t actually think ad exchanges vet their inventory against the standards they tell advertisers they’re adhering to,” she said. “What happens instead is they let all kinds of disinformation sites in, and hope no one notices. When they get called out, they will say they ‘missed that one.’”
As one marketer bluntly put it a few years back, “the term ‘fake news’ is now being used to refer to many different types of content, including the most offensive hate speech but often opinions that the reader doesn’t happen to agree with. Subjectivity becomes an important point when looking across millions of sites.”
Even the folks working in adtech will readily admit that the industry has a bit of a problem with passing the buck. It doesn’t help that there’s a clown car of intermediaries between site like CNN.com or FoxNews.com and the ad that plays at the top of its homepage—which, in my case visiting CNN, is a Tourism promotion for Brockville, Ontario, a city I’ve never been to nor plan to visit (though the beaches do look nice).
I doubt the CNN ads department knew it was showing me that ad for a Canadian Getaway, or that the Canadians themselves knew they’d end up in front of my eyeballs. I also doubt whichever exchange among the oodles that CNN w0rks with would know, either, since these companies aren’t typically interacting directly with advertisers, or websites, or readers. They’re talking to other adtech platforms with absolutely mind-numbing titles like “DSP’s” or “SSP’s” or “CDP’s.” Some of these platforms might see themselves as being a part of the online information machine. Most don’t.
“Like most tech companies they want to take over their market and they want to maximize their returns any way possible,” said Aram Zucker-Scharff, an adtech engineering director at The Washington Post in a 2016 Poynter interview.
“I reported briefly on economics in 2007 and in many ways ad tech reminds me of the big banks problem,” he said. “They don’t care about the economy, they are individuals looking to get as much money as possible and leave the problems to the next generation.”
In practice, according to Atkin, this left us with with a digital ad ecosystem where misinformation is “wildly profitable,” even when the marketers dropping those dollars want nothing to do with vaccine hoaxes or an attempted coup at The Capitol.
“Marketers are members of our community too,” Atkin said. We all care about violence. We don’t want to stomach their campaigns funding insurrections. But most [of them]—let alone the average person—doesn’t understand how the systems distribute ads and ad budgets across the internet.”