Democracy’s Soft Underbelly

Let me explain.

It’s now well-documented that outside forces took advantage of social media platforms to spread rumors in order to swing the 2016 presidential election. Journalists digging into the story are looking more closely at the tools used to purchase advertising that helped amplify these rumors, and are horrified by what they are discovering.

Last week Pro Publica discovered you can target “jew haters” and BuzzFeed News found that on Google you could target phrases such as “blacks ruin everything”

In the days of print, each advertisement was reviewed by multiple people from both the organization that bought the ad and the publication that ran it. Extreme care was taken to make sure the advertising complemented the editorial and the message was the right fit for the audience, not only to maximize effectiveness but also to avoid instances such as the one below.

Despite careful review, print ad placements sometimes backfire

Online advertising is a delicate balance between scale and quality. The dream is to serve a perfectly targeted ad to as many people as possible. But because of the scale, it is impossible to manually review each and every ad creative for quality and fit. In the online world, people “optimize” and let the algorithms do the work.

While at Yahoo, I met with an advertiser who wanted to learn about our behavioral targeting options. I was working with a team that was thinking about exposing detailed facets of the massive Yahoo audience that would help advertisers reach very specific segments. When I walked into the room, the client had a spreadsheet he was using to allocate his million-dollar budget. After asking a few questions about his goals, I proposed a few very targeted criteria to build his target audience. Unfortunately, he grew frustrated because the total audience was too small and we were going to have to run hundreds of queries to build up the reach he needed. He didn’t have the time to continue the exercise nor appetite to keep track of all the data to show ROI to his client. The meeting wrapped up with four very broad buckets into which he poured roughly $250k each and called it a day.

He couldn’t be bothered with the details.

This is the state of online advertising today. The tools available to reach massive scale are even more sophisticated but to do it right, with quality, requires manual oversight. Ad units can be configured to dynamically swap out ad copy and assets depending on the target audience, which can also be built algorithmically. Ad spend adjusts automatically and APIs monitor trending keywords to take early advantage of trending topics and get broad reach on the cheap.

“Programmatic Advertising” is a blanket term for techniques used to automatically generate thousands of “personalized” ads at massive scale. Because it’s automated, generating ad copy variants and target segments is inexpensive. The downside is that quality suffers if you take out the human element, leaving the robots to mind the store.

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There are many examples that show us that resulting matches still need regular review. As long as ad matching algorithms such as Google’s and Facebook’s remain black boxes, a regular human review is necessary to prevent the unexpected.

Which brings me back to what we’re learning today. Last week Facebook shared that ad placements made to “amplify divisive messages” were used to influence the 2016 elections. We are slowly uncovering the extent of information warfare that uses social media platforms to weaponize fake news. Using programmatic advertising to draw attention to and amplify these campaigns is a natural extension.

More careful review of editorial content posted to social networks is important to verify facts and prevent the spread of “fake news.” On the flip side, advertising platforms need review as well because ad targeting is also rife with repugnant audience segments automatically suggested by the algorithms. As they should, Facebook and Google have both said that more rigorous review is on the way but there will always be the tension of profit motives to discourage too rigorous a lens.

In the late-90’s, the movie Wag the Dog spins a tale of how a Washington “spin doctor” (Robert De Niro) hires top Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to engineer public opinion. The film made light of the gullible public but there was a broader, cynical message about how media (and the press) can be used to manipulate public opinion.

Today we are seeing this same scenario played out, but instead of manipulating public opinion through TV and Hollywood, public opinion is bought and sold using social networks and online advertising.

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