Mainstream Advertising is Still Showing Up on Conspiracy and Extremist Websites

Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Andrew Ba Tran, Washington Post:

Jihadi rapists. Muslim invaders. Faked mass shootings. Pizzagate.

Somebody browsing highly partisan websites in recent weeks could have seen articles about all of these subjects — and on the same pages seen cheerful green ads for the Girl Scouts, bearing the slogan “Helping Girls Change the World!”

Such juxtapositions, documented by a Washington Post review of advertising on hundreds of websites, are more than simply jarring. They are products of online advertising systems that regularly put mainstream ads alongside content from the political fringes — and dollars in the pockets of those producing polarizing and politically charged headlines.

Because this is the Post, they use a rather mild description of the kind of horseshit they found mainstream advertisers implicitly supporting. Jeep, Hertz, and the Girl Scouts wouldn’t sponsor a Ku Klux Klan rally; if an ad agency supporting them put their banners up at an extremist’s event, they would be fired. Yet Google somehow has poor control over which websites may use AdSense, especially at the scale at which they operate:

Google says it does not serve ads on sites that feature hate speech, including bullying, harassment or content deemed derogatory or dangerous, and it prohibits publishers that misrepresent their identities. Last year, Google removed 320,000 publishers from the ad network for policy violations and blacklisted nearly 90,000 websites and 700,000 mobile apps, it said.

Those are huge numbers, but so are the numbers in their quarterly earnings report (PDF). I’m not suggesting that Google should be a non-profit, but they certainly can afford more moderators to review what websites are allowed to be in the AdSense program.

As it stands now, advertisers must manually blacklist websites and categories of sites that they don’t wish to see their ads on. If Steven Black’s hosts file is any guidance, that’s a lot of properties that must be blacklisted. Surely it would be more efficient for Google, instead, to quarantine every domain on that list that’s part of their AdSense program.

Update: The unwillingness for ad networks to be more judicious about where their ads may be used might have something to do with how hard it is for them to be held accountable by non-technical users. Think about how hard it is to know — without looking at a site’s markup — which ad network is supporting a website.

I imagine if every placement were required to have visible attribution, ad networks would be a lot more careful about which sites would be allowed. The first time “Powered by Google” appeared on some freelance propagandist’s website or a crank doctor’s bad advice on vaccinations, you know that users would notice.