Money for nothing

There’s a fascinating article in 404 Media about the shameful shuttering of Jezebel, one of the most important feminist publications online. According to the CEO of parent firm G/O Media, which acquired the site from its previous publisher, “our business model and the audiences we serve across our network did not align with Jezebel’s.”

The audience here isn’t you or I. It’s advertisers. And those advertisers are worried about “brand safety”, which means in effect there’s no money to pay for anything potentially controversial.

the advertising industry has singled out the issues the audience cares about most, like reproductive rights, as unsuitable to sell ads against, even though a ton of people want to read about them. This helps explain the precarity of publications like Jezebel, despite it being more vital to its audience than ever.

Let’s see what sort of content is considered too risky for brand safety, shall we?

words like “abortion,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “wade,” “gay,” “transgender,” “sexual,” regularly show up on brand safety keyword blocklists, which four different industry experts told 404 Media are extensive, ever growing, and rarely updated.

The goal, mostly, is to ensure that adverts are not placed next to abusive content – such as bigotry or conspiracy nonsense. But this broad brushstroke blocking means that adverts will not be placed next to legitimate content either, such as magazines for gay and trans people, or information about safe abortion. And it seems rather hypocritical when you see many of the brands who have brand safety divisions continuing to advertise on Twitter next to blatant homophobic, transphobic, racist and anti-semitic abuse and increasingly, illegal content.

Blocklists are a fairly low-tech tool, and many advertisers are moving away from them to more sophisticated “sentiment analysis”. But that too can have a chilling effect:

[one ad system giant says] advertisers can choose to block all sorts of potential topics, especially those that may elicit negative emotions as detected by its artificial intelligence: “Exclude content relating to negative news or sentiment around sensitive social issues such as immigration, abortion, euthanasia, vaccines

As the advertising giant quoted above admits, that exclusion will also apply to:

educational, informative, and scientific content related to the topic.

In effect, then, online yahoos effectively get to censor what journalism is and isn’t funded: if it’ll get a bunch of far-right goons, Qanon reality deniers or other vocal minorities outraged, it won’t get funded. And if it won’t get funded, editors aren’t going to commission any more of it.

This is the fundamental problem with an advertising funded economy. For decades, there was a wall between editorial and advertising, with the latter unable to influence the former. That’s because it was widely understood that the interests of advertisers and the interests of editorial often diverged and could even be in opposition. Now, though, advertising and editorial are linked – and because of this, many publishers are no longer in the business of telling, but of selling.

The problem with that is by and large, it’s not a problem for right-wing media. The most rabid right-wing publications have generous funders with very deep pockets. It’s the publications on the left, which don’t tend to have billionaires backing them, that have the problem. If advertisers don’t want to be associated with potentially troll-attracting content – content such as information on climate change, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, vaccines and so on – then the only way to pay for it is to put it behind a paywall. And that creates an uneven playing field where the hate speech, misinformation and disinformation is free to read; the accurate stuff is locked away.

As 404 Media puts it succinctly:

there’s an entire advertising industry that has fucked the internet, and fucked society. 

It’s hard to disagree.