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Fancy that! Google was keen on 'draining the swamp' in 2013

But ad networks still power 'fake news'

Swamp alligators crowd near muddy water pool. Photo by Shutterstock

Faced with a report showing Google’s advertising network allowed big brands' ad money to be spent funding criminal operations, Google welcomed initiatives to “drain the swamp” in 2013 - three and a half years ago.

But guess what? The swamp’s still here. And it's feeding a different sort of creature now.

Today the Wall Street Journal reports how “fake news” clickbait sites are richly rewarded by Google’s advertising network. Of course they are. That’s why they do it. Buzzfeed (oh, the irony) traced hundreds of clickbait domains to one operation run out of a provincial town in Macedonia.

“Well-known brands’ appearance on fake-news sites reflects the complexity [our emphasis] of online advertising, where computers can place a different ad each time a user clicks on a webpage. Multiple middlemen are often involved, leaving both publishers and advertisers uncertain about which ads will appear where.”

This might sound familiar. Around four years ago, independent musicians, songwriters and filmmakers tried to find out how big brand advertisements were funding criminal piracy operations. Here’s how David Lowery described it: "When things get complex, it's typically to hide some institution from liability. In finance, there's a saying: 'Complexity is fraud'".

The brands didn’t like it when their ads showed up on porn sites. It was bad for the brand. The industry body the IAB took an interest. And Google made a promise, which today reads better than ever.

Google's Theo Bertram welcomed initiatives to "drain the swamp of dodgy networks, dodgy agencies and dodgy sites” and pointed to its own efforts with "in partnership" with IAB.

That was in 2013. How’s the draining operation doing? The swamp must be bone-dry by now.

“Many Google-placed ads, including those for big brands, continue to appear on the sites, even including ads for Google’s new Pixel smartphones,” the WSJ tells us.

Oh.

The WSJ saw a tip of an iceberg: according to the World Federation of Advertisers, many ads are bought, paid for, the cheques cashed, but never seen by a human. The system is “fraudulent by design”, to ensure the parties involved continue to profit, undisturbed.

The ad body described the many flavours of fraud in a report this summer, concluding: "Until the industry can prove that it has the capability to effectively deal with ad fraud, advertisers should use caution in relation to increasing their digital media investment, to limit their exposure to fraud," it warned.

An exodus by big brands from the ad networks is not impossible to imagine. ®

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