Big brand ads on disinformation sites? This is the subject of the magazine “Complément d’études” in its back-to-school issue broadcast on Thursday, September 2. After six weeks of investigation, journalists helped by a group of volunteers identified more than 10,000 advertising inserts on pages known to share infox, for example, around vaccines against Covid-19. At the top of the table, with more than a hundred advertisements broadcast, are companies well known to the general public such as the Abritel rental service, operators Orange and Bouygues and La Poste.
However, these inserts visible to Internet users help finance these disinformation sites. Each year, 2.6 billion dollars (2.2 billion euros) would be paid by large companies to platforms broadcasting fake news, according to a report by advertising analyst Comscore and NewsGuard, an organization that analyzes the degree of credibility and transparency of news sites. However, it is difficult to know if these brands are aware of the phenomenon. In question, a complex advertising system.
Companies that want to promote their services or products mainly turn to programmatic advertising. Rather than displaying their advertisements on a particular website without distinguishing between Internet users, advertisers are able to target the people most likely to buy their products, throughout their browsing on the web thanks to tools like those from Google, the market leader.
“The advertiser defines a target upstream, according to more or less precise characteristics, for example, rather men aged 25 to 49 urban “, illustrates Vincent Balusseau, professor of marketing at Audencia Business School and author of Advertising in the age of data, published in 2018. “Then Google or another player in the programmatic ecosystem will broadcast the advertisement on a set of sites [dont il gère l’espace publicitaire] when he knows that the intended target is behind the screen. “ Identification aided by the collection of information on users, in particular by tracking their browsing on the web (using the famous cookies).
Several brands can find themselves in competition to reach the same targets. The specificity of programmatic advertising is therefore to use the auction system: the advertiser who wins the right to display his advertisement is the one who offers the highest bid, according to levels fixed in advance and optimization in real time. “The auction takes place instantly, it is the equivalent of the stock market but on infinitely higher volumes”, summarizes Vincent Balusseau.
“Suddenly, the editorial environment in which the individual finds himself is sometimes less well taken into account. [Un annonceur] may very well end up seeing his ad appear on a Covid-19 disinformation site “, regrets the professor of marketing.
“With the explosion in the number of sites and advertising spaces, we found ourselves in a situation that was much more difficult to control than in the past, when we bought (…) over the counter.”Vincent Balusseau, professor of marketing
The windfall is considerable for disinformation sites, even if, in the absence of transparency on advertising data, only estimates can be produced. At the rate of a fraction of a cent per advertising insert displayed (this is called an “impression”), each year, 1.68% of advertising expenditure on the internet would thus finance disinformation, according to NewsGuard and Comscore analyzes carried out on a sample of 7,500 sites.
Globally, programmatic advertising is worth $ 155 billion, according to the same source. “1.68%, that may not seem like much, but in fact it’s huge”, supports Chine Labbé, European Editor-in-Chief of NewsGuard. This tiny percentage that fell into the pockets of infox providers would therefore represent $ 2.6 billion. By way of comparison, the NewsGuard and Comscore report estimates that in the United States, for “$ 2.16 in digital ad revenue sent to trusted newspapers, US advertisers send $ 1 to misinformation sites”.
“Many of these sites [de désinformation] have better audiences than traditional media “, observes the co-founder of the Global Disinformation Index, Danny Rogers, in “Further investigation”. He denounces “a race to the one who will make the most touting content, the most conspiratorial”. “Everyone knows this business is toxic, but there is so much money to be made that the inertia is considerable. Nobody wants to fix the problem.”, accuses this specialist.
In fact, brands may be unaware that they finance disinformation, argues Vincent Balusseau. Many of them outsource their digital advertising to agencies. “Even these agencies may not be aware that there are so many sites on the internet that you can buy ads that slip through the cracks.” So for the professor of marketing, faced with the billions of ad impressions that occur every day on the Internet, “No risk does not exist.”
“Brand safety” systems exist to prevent promotional campaigns from landing on certain categories of sites. Pornography, hate speeches, violence… Sites displaying this type of content can easily be excluded by advertisers with current tools. “But it doesn’t work as well for disinformation”, points out Chine Labbé, of NewsGuard.
In question: content more difficult to label clearly and the evolution of websites. From one owner to another and sometimes from one article to another, they can navigate between information and disinformation, explains Chine Labbé, whose company offers a service that relies on the work of journalists and not on automated sorting processes. “There is no such thing as zero risk, but between zero risk and the need to pay attention to this problem, there is a margin”, summarizes China Labbé.
“No brand has an interest in standing next to false or potentially dangerous content”, adds the journalist. According to her, advertisements from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer sometimes appear on sites sharing fake news around its messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19. “It makes no sense to say that there was a financial interest in them.”
“A lot of brands don’t realize the problem. (…) But I think that awareness is being raised.”Chine Labbé, European editor of NewsGuard
Faced with the scale of the “infodemic” which is shaking the planet and has pushed the UN to sound the alarm (article in English), citizens have decided to shake up brands on social networks. This is the case of Sleeping Giants, an organization founded in the United States and present in France, which calls on companies to cut advertising funding for conservative, racist, xenophobic and homophobic media. A campaign that is bearing fruit, so much so that the weekly Current values announced to file a complaint against the organization last June, after the withdrawal of several advertisers.
For the collective, it is the platforms that would bear the most responsibility for this funding, and in particular Google, whose 80% of income comes from online advertising, reports the American channel CNBC. (in English). “Google doesn’t differentiate between a CNN site and a bad site. They agree to monetize all kinds of disinformation sites.”, accuses the co-founder of Sleeping Giants, Nandini Jammi, in “Further investigation”. Google, however, has specific rules that prevent the monetization of websites expressing, for example, a “anti-vaccine activism”. Asked by the magazine’s journalists, the American giant was unable to provide an answer.
The dossier is of interest to the European Commission. “Disinformation cannot remain a source of income”, thundered Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, presenting the new orientations of the institution against the dissemination of false news. “We need to strengthen the engagement of online platforms, the entire advertising ecosystem, and fact-checker networks.” It could soon be expensive for platforms like Google: the draft “Digital Services Act” proposed by the Commission, which includes new provisions against disinformation, envisages fines of up to 6% of their annual income (in English).