Google Serves Half Of Ad Traffic For Fake News Websites, Finds Study

According to the study, getting the ad servers to blacklist dubious websites would go a long way in cutting down their operation, while costing very less to the ad firms.

A study conducted by the School of Information at the University of Michigan found that hundreds of fake news websites were dependent on prominent ad firms, including Google Doubleclick, for ad revenue.

The study, titled "Market Forces: Quantifying the Role of Top Credible Ad Servers in the Fake News Ecosystem", by researchers Lia Bozarth and Ceren Budak, found that Google provided nearly 48% of all ad traffic on fake news websites. They further found that the top-10 most credible ad firms accounted for 66.7% of ad traffic on fake news websites, and another 55.6%% ad traffic on low-quality websites.

The study also showed that while credible ad firms accounted for more than half of ad traffic on fake news websites, the rest of the ads were usually served by risky ad servers.

The study provides a market-based solution to fighting fake news. The researchers argue that while the fake and low-quality news publishers are heavily reliant on top credible ad servers like Google Doubleclick for ad traffic and revenue, in return they provide very little revenue share to the ad firms running these servers.

Considering the findings of the study, getting the ad servers to blacklist these websites would go a long way in cutting down their operation, while costing very less to the ad firms.

Methodology

To conduct the study, the researchers used a list of misleading websites, compiled in 2018 by Merrimack College media scholar Melissa Zimdars, and analysed the advertisements on these websites. Click here to view the list.

While Zimdars had compiled 765 websites in her list, Bozarth and Budak removed the defunct websites, leaving them with 545 active sites to analyse.

The researchers also took into consideration a list of fake news publishers compiled by fact checking website PolitiFact, and removed 60% of the websites that were found to be defunct.

These sites were further classified into three subtypes - traditional, fake or low-quality.

The duo then aggregated a list of known ad servers on the web using EasyList and EasyList Privacy, which lists most known ad servers for ad-blocking platforms.

Using the Selenium Web-Driver API - a tool that simulates the browsing behaviour of humans, they identified the subset of ad servers on traditional, low-quality and fake news sites, along with the ads that were served.

The researchers then determined the credibility of the ad servers using VirusTotal - a tool that aggregates antivirus softwares and online scan engines to look for viruses, along with a few publicly available malware domain lists. The ad servers were then classified as either credible or risky.

Out of the 565 ad servers analysed, approximately 78.8% were found to be credible, while the rest were deemed as risky.

Simplified Advertising Ecosystem. Bozarth, Lia and Budak, Ceren, Market Forces: Quantifying the Role of Top Credible Ad Servers in the Fake News Ecosystem (July 13, 2020).

Findings

The first part of the analysis looked at the extent to which traditional, fake and low-quality news sites were supported by ad servers, along with the types of ad servers (in terms of credibility) that provided such support.

On a surprising note, the results indicated that traditional and low-quality news websites far surpassed fake news publishers in terms of number of ad servers on their respective websites.

They also found that a larger percent of fake news websites are ad free, as compared to traditional news websites. Roughly 29.6% and 32.8% of fake and low-quality news sites were found to be ad free, respectively, compared to 22.9% of traditional publishers.

However, the traffic on ad free fake news publishers were significantly lower than that of those supported by ads - thus implying that fake news publishers have a significantly higher reliance on ad servers for traffic as compared to traditional news sites.

The second part of the study aimed to answer the question, "How concentrated is fake and other low-quality news publishers' ad reliance on a small number of top credible ad servers?"

Some of the top ad servers featuring in their list were Google Doubleclick, Google Syndication, Earnify, Lockerdome, AddThis, GumGum, Outbrain, and Zemanta.

The study then ranked the top-10 credible ad servers for traditional, fake and low-quality publishers according to (i) weighted domain share, and (ii) weighted ad traffic share.

The results of the weighted domain share analysis indicated that these credible ad servers played a substantial role in serving ad revenue to a large portion of the fake news sites. 6.7% of all fake domains were found to be entirely dependent on these ad servers, and were sure to perish if they were blacklisted by the servers.

The analysis of weighted ad traffic confirmed that these top ad servers played a critical role in providing revenue streams to shady news publishers. 66.7% of the ad traffic on fake news websites were provided by the top 10 ad credible servers.

The study also revealed that fake and low-quality publishers were significantly more likely to partner with dubious and risky ad servers, thus exposing visitors to potential security and privacy risks.

The last part of the study looked at how much it would cost the ad servers to blacklist fake and low-quality news sites, to assess the feasibility of blacklisting these sites by the ad servers.

In order to answer this question, the researchers matched each ad server to its company using the portal Whois. Furthermore, each company's aggregated weighted ad traffic for fake, traditional and low-quality news sites was determined, and their ad revenue was estimated using a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

The researchers obtained the 2018 ad revenue information for the advertising firms from press releases, financial statements, market research firms or company profilers, and computed the respective annual ad revenue from each group of news publishers - traditional, fake and low-quality.

The study revealed that most of the revenue generated were through traditional news publishers, and that fake and low-quality news websites contributed little to the firms' overall ad revenue.

Solutions

Taking into consideration the findings from the study, the researchers provide a market-based solution to fighting fake news.

They make a compelling case - while fake and low-quality publishers are heavily reliant on the credible ad firms for ad traffic and revenue, in turn they provide very little revenue share to the ad firms.

Considering the implications of the study, blacklisting these websites would thus go a long way in shutting them down, or greatly cutting down their operation, while costing very less to the ad firms.

The researchers argue that pushing these shady websites to low-quality ad servers would provide additional visual cues to visitors that the site and ads are not trustworthy.

Updated On: 2021-06-17T08:52:04+05:30
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