Chris Sutcliffe: Fixing the flaws of digital adland’s dystopic world

Some organisations have dedicated themselves to fixing the broken digital advertising ecosystem.

It's not a stretch to say that the economics of digital advertising are to blame for disasters like Brexit and Trump.

It sounds simplistic, but the means by which the news and opinion that sway public opinion get disseminated is dictated by which is likely to generate revenue for news publishers. Unfortunately, over the past few years the means of distribution that is most effective for generating revenue has been chasing huge audiences against which publishers can serve low-value digital ads. To attract those vast audiences, publishers have variously resorted to clickbait, highly partisan articles and, problematically, misinformation designed to appeal to confirmation bias. That's exacerbated by methods of selling digital ads that don't differentiate between sites, infamously leading to some ads appearing against extremist content or on publishers like Mail Online, without brands' consent. It's no surprise, then, that some concerned organisations have dedicated themselves to fixing the broken digital advertising ecosystem. One such effort, the project, has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the arts and journalism fund the Knight Foundation in order to fix the problem of ads appearing against content the brand doesn't agree with. The project lead for, Danny Rogers, explains why it is a 'first step' to fixing the spread of misinformation online: 'You look at the way ads are placed, the lack of control and transparency that brands have... it's a very off-balance industry and so taking advantage of that lack of balance in order to push the whole machine is geopolitical judo at its finest. One of the very obvious ways is to help brands and platforms prevent advertising support to the misinformation sites that are floating out there.' Using lessons learned from large-scale data analysis, will help publishers develop block lists of misinformation sites, and give brands tools to help determine where their ads appear. In the same way that tools like adblockers give individuals the choice about which sites to personally support by allowing ads through the blocker,'s tools will allow brands to choose which publishers are worth supporting with ad revenue. Like other attempts to fix the digital ad ecosystem, such as Stanford University's ongoing attempts to create a News Quality Score that increases the value of advertising on sites that have proven to be accurate sources of news, faces the challenge of getting publishers and platforms that benefit from the current system to adopt a new system. Rogers explains: 'There is a strong appetite for brands to bring quality back into the conversation, asking where are the ads appearing and what is the context, and making that matter. The challenge is really with the content distribution network folks out there, like Revcontent and Taboola, and getting them to understand their own role and responsibilities.' There's no cast-iron guarantee that any of these individual efforts can truly 'fix' digital advertising. Each faces innumerable challenges, from dealing with ad giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, through facing adversity from publishers who benefit from the current system, to getting adopted by a notoriously fractured network of ad buyers, sellers and servers. But with the current system favouring polemic rhetoric and the creation of misinformation that has led to societal disasters like Brexit, it's heartening to see projects attempting to fix the broken financial incentives that allowed them to occur in the first place.

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