There’s been a lot of hoopla about the scourge of fake news. As someone who works with, and around, people that value settling on the facts before interpreting them, I’m discouraged to see the rise of lying as a legitimate “business” model.
However, I don’t really blame these Macedonian teens, or whomever really, for gaming a rigged and corrupt system. A system that has been allowed to embarrassingly continue and has been defrauding legitimate businesses of advertising dollars for years. I’m talking about the 800 layers of bloated, inefficient, and downright fraudulent ad tech that the digital advertising world is dealing with right now.
I want you to imagine you’re walking into a burger restaurant. You go up to the counter and order a cheeseburger. However, you’re health conscious, so you first ask what the ingredients are. The cashier responds that they can’t tell you what goes into the burger, but they can tell you it’s great! In fact it’s a premium burger. Much better than the other place down the street. Also, after you pay, you only have a 55% chance of actually receiving what you paid for. In addition, if you do manage to get anything, up to half of it won’t be real beef. It’ll be bug meat. Sounds absurd right?
This is the reality of programmatic advertising right now.
So this is really important to understand, because in an effort to secure their inventory and undercut one another, these ad exchanges have extremely opaque inventories. When I go buy on a demand side platform, I often times have no way of seeing what the inventory is until I’ve actually bought it, and even then it’s only through measuring clicks on the back end. So these teens sign up for these exchanges, and then they arbitrage this against Facebook’s traffic. Essentially what they’re doing, is buying clicks on Facebook cheaper than they’re selling them by tapping into hot button high traffic issues. In this case, the US presidential election.
Which brings me back to this original point. These kids don’t give a shit about the election. They’re pretty transparent that they’re in this game for the money. These Macedonian teens simply took advantage of the system. Very few advertisers wake up the morning, walk over to their computer, and then think to themselves. “Hmm, I should buy some ads on thetruthaboutjohnpodestaandhillary.com, that’s the ticket!” There’s just no meaningful way to discern what you’re buying unless you have the budget to force exchanges to have transparency.
So you want to end fake news? Clean up the digital ad ecosystem. Hell, regulate them to force inventory transparency. It’ll end the financial incentive while also preserving the rights of independent and indie press. In addition, you’ll give small advertisers equal footing to play with the big players. Someone just has to have the guts to take on the advertising industrial complex.