“You Think You Know How Misinformation Spreads? Welcome to the Hellhole of Programmatic Advertising”

Steven Brill in Wired:

In 2019, other than the government of Vladimir Putin, Warren Buffett was the biggest funder of Sputnik News, the Russian disinformation website controlled by the Kremlin. It wasn’t that the legendary champion of American capitalism had an alter ego who woke up every morning wondering how he could help finance Vladimir Putin’s global propaganda network. It was because Geico, the giant American insurance company and subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, was the leading advertiser on the American version of Sputnik News’ global website network.

Nor was it because a marketing executive at Geico had decided that advertising on the Russian disinformation outlet was a good idea. That would have been especially unlikely, not only because of the Buffett connection, but also because Geico stands for Government Employees Insurance Company and has its roots dating to the 1930s, providing insurance to civilians and members of the military who worked for the American government, not its Russian adversary.

In fact, no one at Geico or its advertising agency had any idea its ads would appear on Sputnik, let alone what anti-American content would be displayed alongside the ads. How could they? Which person or army of people at Geico or its agency could have read 44,000 websites?

Geico’s ads had been placed through a programmatic advertising system that was invented in the late 1990s as the internet developed. It exploded beginning in the mid 2000s and is now the overwhelmingly dominant advertising medium. Programmatic algorithms, not people, decide where to place most of the ads we now see on websites, social media platforms, mobile devices, streaming television, and increasingly hear on podcasts. The numbers involved are mind-boggling. If Geico’s advertising campaign were typical of programmatic campaigns for broad-based consumer products and services, each of its ads would have been placed on an average of 44,000 websites, according to a study done for the leading trade association of big-brand advertisers.

Geico is hardly the only rock-solid American brand to be funding the Russians. During the same period that the insurance company’s ads appeared on Sputnik News, 196 other programmatic advertisers bought ads on the website, including Best Buy, E-Trade, and Progressive insurance. Sputnik News’ sister propaganda outlet, RT.com (it was once called Russia Today until someone in Moscow decided to camouflage its parentage), raked in ad revenue from Walmart, Amazon, PayPal, and Kroger, among others….

There are multiple arguments contradicting the assumption that where ads run makes no difference, including studies showing that people respond more positively to advertising that appears on websites and in other media that they take seriously. Yet programmatic advertising has thrived based on the central belief that all impressions aimed at the right target are equally valuable. So, if Sputnik News is selling an impression for less than a legitimate local newspaper is asking for it, Sputnik will win the auction. It’s a perpetual, instantaneous race to the bottom. If the bid for an impression on the Santa Monica Observer—a hoax website that ran a phony story about Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, being with a male prostitute when he was brutally attacked last year—is lower than the bid offered for an ad on an article that tells the real story of what happened to Pelosi published by the San Francisco Chronicle, which pays real reporters to write real stories, then Hertz’s ad will be on the Observer story. As, indeed, it was.

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