It’s almost Halloween, so here’s a spooky riddle: What’s scarier than Facebook fueling a global disinformation crisis? Answer: The hundreds of obscure adtech companies hanging out behind the scenes piping billions of dollars to everyone with a computer and a conspiracy theory.
All eyes are on Facebook this week, but let’s put a pin in that as we discuss the other half of the horror story. While Facebook pushes users towards the most inflammatory content on the web, there's an entire ecosystem of advertising platforms you’ve likely never heard of that converts all that traffic into a virtually unlimited supply of ad dollars.
We call it the disinformation economy, and it looks roughly like this:
But Claire and Nandini, this is a boring and unintelligible map of the adtech landscape. Did you maybe download the wrong image?
Nope. We’re saying that this right here — the advertising supply chain — is the ATM of the disinformation economy. And it's a world that is just as sinister as Facebook, if not more.
Why? Because while Facebook doesn't even know who's signing up to its platform, many of the adtech companies you see on this map have active business relationships with disinformation networks. We're talking contracts, data-sharing agreements, bank account numbers and much more.
Some of these companies help disinformation outlets maximize advertising revenues. Others automatically direct huge sums of advertiser budgets towards hate speech, bigotry and racist rhetoric. There's even an entire category of companies that exists solely to assure advertisers that everything is fine. (It's not.)
This industry directly finances the spiraling production of misleading and inflammatory online content across the open web, funneling anywhere between $250 million to $2.6 billion to disinformation efforts every year.
In other words, they print money for the bad guys.
You would think advertisers are in charge around here. At least that's what we thought when we first began the Sleeping Giants campaign to alert advertisers their ads were inadvertently sponsoring Breitbart.
But what we've learned is that they're not the ones in control. The advertising supply chain has become so large and bloated that no one — not even the biggest advertisers in the world — has any idea where their money ends up. One study found that 15% of advertising dollars simply disappeared into thin air. They call it the "unknown delta."
We've also learned that adtech companies intentionally designed it that way. Over time, they've made it easier for advertisers to spend millions of dollars across the open web and harder to check their ads. And they've made it really easy for bad guys to sneak into the supply chain through sketchy middlemen and dark pools.
As we've heard them say before: "If everyone's getting what they want, what's the harm?"
As you might guess, the adtech industry is in no hurry to fix itself. The trade organizations that are supposed to be fixing the problem are all stuffed with Facebook and Google executives. And the advertisers? The bigger they are, the more out of the loop they are on the way their ad dollars are being spent. They have no idea how deep they have to go to find out how badly they're being screwed over or how much money they're sending to the worst corners of the web.
So we have been doing it for them. For the last two years, we've been parsing the unforgivably convoluted advertising supply chain to uncover ties between disinformation networks and the adtech industry.
They say the devil is in the details, and we have found that to be literally true. We've surfaced investigations that…
Our investigations work like a charm: We uncover ties to disinformation, they disappear. Just like that.
Why? Because this isn't their money. The money belongs to advertisers. And when we reveal the reckless and possibly fraudulent ways they're messing with their clients, they shape up real quick. Adtech companies cannot keep sending billions of dollars to bad actors if we catch them doing it.
You could say we've found a playbook — and we’re ready to take on that role officially. The disinformation crisis is solvable. And we know where to start.
We are so excited to introduce you to Check My Ads Institute, the adtech industry's first watchdog. It’s a brand new non-profit with one job: end the ad-funded disinformation crisis once and for all.
You know why this work matters. Here’s what we’re doing with Check My Ads:
As we take on this critical mission, we need your support. Here are three ways you can help:
If you've enjoyed our work, go to 👉🏻 Check My Ads Institute 👈🏽
Thank you for being here! OMG!
Claire and Nandini