Disinformation and the Efficacy of Advertising

Joe Bernstein (the Senior Technology Reporter at Buzzfeed News) did a Harper’s piece on Disinformation that is one of the first longform pieces that takes seriously one of the main criticisms I have about most people’s obsessions with “Disinformation” as the root cause of many societal problems in the modern age:


Big Disinfo has found energetic support from the highest echelons of the American political center, which has been warning of an existential content crisis more or less constantly since the 2016 election. To take only the most recent example: in May, Hillary Clinton told the former Tory leader Lord Hague that “there must be a reckoning by the tech companies for the role that they play in undermining the information ecosystem that is absolutely essential for the functioning of any democracy.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Big Tech agrees. Compared with other, more literally toxic corporate giants, those in the tech industry have been rather quick to concede the role they played in corrupting the allegedly pure stream of American reality. Only five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “pretty crazy idea” that bad content on his website had persuaded enough voters to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” he said. “There is a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw fake news.” A year later, suddenly chastened, he apologized for being glib and pledged to do his part to thwart those who “spread misinformation.”

Denial was always untenable, for Zuckerberg in particular. The so-called techlash, a season of belatedly brutal media coverage and political pressure in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s win, made it difficult. But Facebook’s basic business pitch made denial impossible. Zuckerberg’s company profits by convincing advertisers that it can standardize its audience for commercial persuasion. How could it simultaneously claim that people aren’t persuaded by its content? Ironically, it turned out that the big social-media platforms shared a foundational premise with their strongest critics in the disinformation field: that platforms have a unique power to influence users, in profound and measurable ways. Over the past five years, these critics helped shatter Silicon Valley’s myth of civic benevolence, while burnishing its image as the ultra-rational overseer of a consumerist future.

Behold, the platforms and their most prominent critics both proclaim: hundreds of millions of Americans in an endless grid, ready for manipulation, ready for activation. Want to change an output—say, an insurrection, or a culture of vaccine skepticism? Change your input. Want to solve the “crisis of faith in key institutions” and the “loss of faith in evidence-based reality”? Adopt a better content-moderation policy. The fix, you see, has something to do with the algorithm.

It reexamines the history of Advertising in light of how we discuss it in the modern age and asks how many of the ultimate outcomes see see IRL are actually a direct result of advertising campaigns…and how much are just Advertisers taking credit for things that (otherwise) would have happened anyway. And it points to the dark reality that is buying into the premise that Advertising at any level can be as compelling or as effective as those who make money selling Advertising claim it can be…and asks people to be more discerning and questioning of the premise…given the incentives and stakes involved.

Basically, to really buy that Disinformation has the power it says it does…you have to buy into this premise that Online Advertises and microtargeting is uniquely more effective than other forms…and there is just no clear evidence to show that it is. Almost all the data on these topics comes straight from Facebook and Google and it’s in their interest as people who make money by selling advertisements…to perpetuate that understanding.

Today, an even greater aura of omnipotence surrounds the digital ad maker than did his print and broadcast forebears. According to Tim Hwang, a lawyer who formerly led public policy at Google, this image is maintained by two “pillars of faith”: that digital ads are both more measurable and more effective than other forms of commercial persuasion. The asset that structures digital advertising is attention. But, Hwang argues in his 2020 book Subprime Attention Crisis, attention is harder to standardize, and thus worth much less as a commodity, than the people buying it seem to think. An “illusion of greater transparency” offered to ad buyers hides a “deeply opaque” marketplace, automated and packaged in unseen ways and dominated by two grimly secretive companies, Facebook and Google, with every interest in making attention seem as uniform as possible. This is perhaps the deepest criticism one can make of these Silicon Valley giants: not that their gleaming industrial information process creates nasty runoff, but that nothing all that valuable is coming out of the factory in the first place.

Look closer and it’s clear that much of the attention for sale on the internet is haphazard, unmeasurable, or simply fraudulent. Hwang points out that despite being exposed to an enormous amount of online advertising, the public is largely apathetic toward it. More than that, online ads tend to produce clicks among people who are already loyal customers. This is, as Hwang puts it, “an expensive way of attracting users who would have purchased anyway.” Mistaking correlation for causation has given ad buyers a wildly exaggerated sense of their ability to persuade.

So too has the all-important consumer data on which targeted advertising is based, and which research has exposed as frequently shoddy or overstated. In recently unsealed court documents, Facebook managers disparaged the quality of their own ad targeting for just this reason. An internal Facebook email suggests that COO Sheryl Sandberg knew for years that the company was overstating the reach of its ads.

Why, then, do buyers love digital advertising so much? In many cases, Hwang concludes, it’s simply because it looks good at a meeting, blown up on an analytics dashboard: “It makes for great theater.” In other words, the digital-advertising industry relies on our perception of its ability to persuade as much as on any measurement of its ability to actually do so. This is a matter of public relations, of storytelling. And here, the disinformation frame has been a great asset.

The other thing I’ll add about digital advertising is that, it almost certainly does provide incrementally more insight than more analog advertising…and it also does so at a lower cost… So, on a per dollar basis…it’s “better” than the alternative…even if it is not more “effective” in converting people, etc.

If you have read “Victory Lab” by Sasha Issenberg, about the history of political campaigning and the rise of the Obama 2008 campaign…this is very much the same story he tells. The long history of Advertisers (of various forms, direct mail, print advertisers, local news advertisers, etc) all competing with one another for some finite pool of advertising dollars…and how those “trends” shift with time…but with very little in the way of definitive proof.

Oddly enough, very rarely in Issenberg’s book does he stop to ask if Obama ultimately still would have won without most or all of those advertising spends in 2008. Having lived through it, it certainly seemed like earned media alone was enough to sell Obama to a generation people who would have ultimately figured out who he was or heard about him.

Issenberg’s book wraps up before the rise of microtargeting, but it’s easy to see how it applies all the same lessons just the same but to the digital companies like Facebook and Google.

Personally, I find it very dark that there is so much interest in buying into these narratives about how “effective” this advertising is…even as most of us scoff on the regular about how advertisements for some item we already bought (or clearly don’t want to buy) follow us around the internet for weeks after we errantly made one click…there is just a huge disconnect that doesn’t square and is not being considered very deeply. You see a lot of the same skepticism within the companies themselves…that when no one is looking, they often realize there is a disconnect between the reality and the sales pitch.

Additionally, he sees the “disinformation” narrative is tied up with the wider Media “objectivity” narrative that lots of Legacy institutions (and many of us) often critique:

An even more vexing issue for the disinformation field, though, is the supposedly objective stance media researchers and journalists take toward the information ecosystem to which they themselves belong. Somewhat amazingly, this attempt has taken place alongside an agonizing and overdue questioning within the media of the harm done by unexamined professional standards of objectivity. Like journalism, scholarship, and all other forms of knowledge creation, disinformation research reflects the culture, aspirations, and assumptions of its creators. A quick scan of the institutions that publish most frequently and influentially about disinformation: Harvard University, the New York Times, Stanford University, MIT, NBC, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc. That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain. Whatever the brilliance of the individual disinformation researchers and reporters, the nature of the project inevitably places them in a regrettably defensive position in the contemporary debate about media representation, objectivity, image-making, and public knowledge. However well-intentioned these professionals are, they don’t have special access to the fabric of reality

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I thought there was an expectation that the entire 19th century and at least toward the 1920s or 30s journalism was driven only by the commercial interests of the publishers. Hearst or bust. I wonder if reality-based reporting is a more recent thing, starting with muckrakers like Sinclair Lewis. The federal (and state) governments have a lot more powers now than they did a century ago so it is a lot more important now that evaluation of it is based on reality rather than plutocrat whims. But, like existence of a middle class, press based on reality might have just been a passing fad from the 1950s to 70s.