Why does it seem that everywhere you turn these days, you encounter fake news. It’s not fake just because the president calls stuff “fake news” or because of your own imagination. The amount of actual fake information has exploded because fake news is easy to make and easy to spread. Anyone can put content online with no journalistic integrity or editorial oversight. And humans are known to spread and amplify fake news when they share on social media. They share it if the headline and cover image fit their worldview, without actually reading the article, much less verifying the authenticity of its content. Fake news often appears plausible; and often it is even indistinguishable from satire (rightmost example in the screen shots below). Studies have shown ,  that bad news travels faster and spreads wider than real news, which is often boring, because it is factual and not sensationalized.
The following three screen shots show disinformation on fake news sites being shared and amplified on Twitter.
Automated Creation and Spreading of Fake Text, Images, Video, Audio
The process of creating and spreading large amounts of disinformation can be automated and scaled using algorithms. Not only can text be created by software to appear to be a news story, but images, videos, and even audio can be accurately faked to seem real. Images altered by Photoshop are standard practice for years. Human faces created entirely by AI algorithms are now commonly used to create fake accounts now (leftmost example below). Deep-fake videos are proliferating, especially in disinformation campaigns. And finally deep fake audio has been documented in crimes like extortion and online fraud.
But how did we get here? Who has the time and the money to create all this fake news and spread it? Before the Internet, most individuals could not get a message out to a lot of people using mass media, because it was simply too expensive. With the Internet, anyone could write blog posts or create websites to spread lies. But the challenge was getting enough people to the blog or site to read it, so the disinformation could be passed along. With social media, even the spread of disinfo no longer costs money, because other people pass it along for you.
Marketers’ Wanton Ad Spending in Digital, Chasing Low Prices
But the single greatest factor causing the decline of real news and the rise of fake news is the wanton spending of digital ad budgets by marketers, chasing lower prices in programmatic ad tech channels. Of course, the funding and spreading of fake news was inadvertent, hence this article. They literally didn’t know the irreversible harm they were causing. How did the perfect storm of programmatic ad tech, ad fraud, and fake news come about?
In the early days of Internet advertising, marketers would “buy media” directly from publishers and place ads on their sites. Over time, as millions of small sites proliferated, ad exchanges came along to aggregate them, so advertisers could “buy media” at scale in one place (from the exchange) and have their ads shown on millions of sites, sight unseen. Early on, people already knew there were problems, like entirely fake sites created for ad fraud (i.e. to steal ad dollars from unsuspecting advertisers). In 2015 AppNexus famously purged their exchange of outright fake sites and reduced the fake ad impressions from 260 billion to 20 billion per month; that’s a lot of impressions and a lot of dollars.
But this practice persisted because advertisers loved buying larger and larger quantities of ad impressions at lower and lower CPM (cost per thousand) prices. Again common sense would have revealed that if demand rose quickly (ad budgets shifting from offline channels to digital) but supply grew slowly, prices should have gone up. But, what we have witnessed in the last 10 years of digital advertising is that average prices have gone down; that means supply grew even faster than the surge in demand (e.g. digital ad spending jumped from $26 billion in 2010 to $127 billion in 2019).
This created the downward spiral of “wanton low-price chasing” that characterized the rise of programmatic ad tech. Fake sites that plagiarized content, created fake content with algorithms, or used no content at all could afford to sell ads at very low CPMs — precisely because they had low to no cost of content. Real publishers, on the other hand, employed real journalists and editors, and therefore had real human audiences. Their high costs of content meant they could not compete; they simply could not match the low prices of ad inventory sold by fraudulent websites. So marketers, along with their media buying agencies, allocated greater and greater portions of their digital ad budgets to these lower cost sources found in programmatic channels, and away from real publishers and real news organizations that depended on ad revenue.
See: These Hugely Popular Local News Sites In The US And Canada Are Fake
Fake News Killed Real News
The accumulated effects are stark. In the last 15 years, 2,000 newspapers have died; 1,300 communities no longer have local newspapers – “local news deserts.” And some of the largest news organizations have had to cut staff to survive or go bankrupt, like McClatchy in 2019. Fake news sites, like other fraudulent sites, now have a source of revenue – digital advertising. Unlike before, where parties intent on spreading disinformation had to fund those operations out of their own pockets, these same “disinfo ops” now had abundant funding to proliferate — all thanks to ad dollars from large advertisers. The advertisers don’t know they are funding disinformation, hate speech, and fake news, because these sites can easily hide among the millions of other sites that carry digital advertising. That’s the hidden problem created by ad tech – enabling ads and ad dollars to flow to millions of sites that no one has ever heard of, seen, or checked for real content.
Even if the marketers looked more carefully, ad tech has further enabled fraud sites and fake news sites to disguise themselves and continue making money. In recently documented examples, even if advertisers blocked sites like Breitbart, those sites could still make money by pretending to be other sites that were not yet blocked. See: So *that’s* how Breitbart is still making money and Joe Biden’s campaign has been unwittingly funding Breitbart all this time.
And this is a global problem too. Disinformation researchers and specifically the Global Disinformation Index has been documenting and screen shotting ads from major advertisers on fake news sites around the world for years. All of these sites make money using ad tech. Millions of dollars have been siphoned from marketers’ digital ad budgets to support the proliferation of fake news. That’s why the scourge of fake news is real and that’s why it’s so hard to tell what is fake and what is real news — there’s simply too much fake news in the mix now.
Marketers helped fake news kill real news with bullets supplied by ad tech.
Marketers, what are you doing to stop this funding of fake news, hate speech, and disinformation? Paying for brand safety detection tech doesn’t cut it – because they suck at detecting fake news, and block real news sites instead , . Are you even looking at placement reports which tell you where your ads went? If the number one placement of your ads is “no domain provided,” you’re funding fake news. Now you know.
Further reading: Big Advertisers Still Fund Hate And Disinformation Outside Of Facebook