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Disinformation is profitable. That needs to change.

August 21, 2019 | By Rande Price, Research Director—DCN @Randeloo

The business of publishing disinformation, inaccurate information spread purposefully and/or maliciously, is more profitable than ever according to a new study from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI). Analyzing website traffic and audience information from 20,000 domains it suspected of disinformation, GDI estimates the sites generated at least $235 million in ad revenue. GDI is a nonprofit that evaluates and rates websites’ risk of spreading disinformation.  

A fertile environment

The existence of disinformation predated the internet. However, social platforms offer a new level of amplification. Social media coupled with a programmatic marketplace provided the perfect environment for malevolent actors looking for reach, a target audience, and revenue.  

Ad-tech companies’ opaque practices make the environment even more attractive. Some connect buyers and sellers while others collect, aggregate, package and sell data. The result is a black box of operating systems. These shifts in the digital ecosystem offer a golden opportunity for marketers of fraud and disinformation. 

Focused approach

Disinformation actors rely on each another to amplify their messages. Interfering with one actor could potentially make it more difficult for the others to spread their disinformation. However, despite their inter-reliance, disinformation actors each have a distinct focus: 

  • State actors include governments as well as state-linked actors to spread inaccurate information and promote government propaganda. They are centralized actors using digital virality to amplify their message.  
  • Private influence operators are for-hire companies (e.g. Cambridge Analytica) that run commercial marketing and public relations campaigns that aim to disinform the public. They use targeted campaigns to identify a specific psychological, behavioral or politically affiliated audience to amplify their message. Their misleading and false content sites look professional. These ad-supported domains mimic traditional journalism. 
  • Grassroots trolls are individuals or groups that band together for a specific issue or cause. Their content and activities often focus on hate speech or try to push a false narrative. Their messaging often starts out on forums like 4chan or 8chan, move to other intermediate platforms like Reddit and then finally into mainstream media.  
  • Pure rent-seekers are all about clickbait. They churn out sensational disinformation to drive visitors (and bots) to click on their site in order to collect revenue. 

It’s not surprising that today’s digital marketplace offers an effective delivery system for disinformation actors. Unfortunately, the internet is filled with disinformation that is rapidly amplified via social media. And it is human nature to find drama attractive. Disinformation is loud content that demands our attention. It also claims advertising dollars in an efficient and expedited programmatic manner. As an industry, we need to de-incentivize disinformation actors by removing financial and amplification motivators.  

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