Advertising by more than 140 major global brands is supporting the proliferation of unreliable artificial intelligence-generated news and information websites (UAINs), according to an analysis released Monday by a misinformation watchdog group.
The ads appear to be posted on the sites through an automated placement system, most of them through Google, the group, NewsGuard, explained.
The researchers behind the report — Jack Brewster, Zack Fishman, and Elisa Xu — did not identify any of the blue-chip advertisers by name because “none of the brands or their ad agencies had any idea that their advertisements would appear on these unreliable, AI-driven sites.”
However, they did note that the brands included a half-dozen major banks and financial services firms, four luxury department stores, three leading brands in sports apparel, three appliance manufacturers, two of the world’s biggest consumer technology companies, two global e-commerce companies, two of the top U.S. broadband providers, three streaming services offered by American broadcast networks, a Silicon Valley digital platform, and a major European supermarket chain.
“Although many advertisers and their advertising agencies maintain ‘exclusion lists’ of ‘brand unsafe’ websites where their advertising should not appear, these lists are often not kept up to date and clearly have not kept pace with the surge in UAIN sites,” NewsGuard reported.
It added that many UAIN sites appear to be entirely financed by programmatic advertising. Some of the websites churn out huge volumes of articles on which ads can be placed, it continued, which feeds the creation of low-quality, AI-generated sites with little to no apparent editorial oversight. It cited one site that produces an average of more than 1,200 articles a day.
For brands engaged in programmatic advertising, landing on unsavory websites is largely unavoidable, maintained Joe Karasin, CMO and founder of Karasin PPC, a marketing agency in Lapeer, Mich., that specializes in Google Ads.
“Essentially all programmatic is sold in batches, so much like your cable service,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “If you want to advertise on ESPN.com, then you also advertise on all of the other sites in that batch.”
If a brand’s programmatic strategy is to get as many eyeballs for as little money as possible, then appearing on these unreliable artificial intelligence-generated news websites is unavoidable, agreed Liz Miller, vice president and a principal analyst at Constellation Research, a technology research and advisory firm in Cupertino, Calif.
“However,” she told the E-Commerce Times, “if you are a brand leader who has taken the strategy of advertising-driven engagements seriously and has appropriately applied programmatic ad buying in a controlled and constantly monitored manner, these unreliable news sites are likely going to continue to get filtered out as your cleared and exclude lists are constantly updated and refined.”
“But that takes a decision and a commitment to constantly train the list in the same way we now understand an AI model needs to be trained,” she continued. “And advertising — similar to cybersecurity — is a world in which fraudsters and bad actors are moving much faster than the industry and sometimes technology can keep pace with.”
AI Changing Ad Game
Brands concerned with their ads landing on unreliable AI-generated news websites can just be more prudent with whom they do business, asserted Greg Sterling, co-founder of Near Media, a news, commentary and analysis website.
“Advertisers can be more selective and decline to work with programmatic platforms that consistently deliver ads to low-quality sites or work with those that have blacklisting capabilities,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Private marketplaces may also offer higher-quality inventory without these problems,” he added.
Karasin noted that there are also self-service tools that allow a brand to pick and choose through inventory. “If you have someone on staff that can navigate that, it is worth investing in,” he said.
Miller, though, argues that AI requires advertisers to reevaluate their business goals.
“Does it make more sense for a brand to go back to private or direct buys with vetted and trusted sources to retain more control and to better focus experience journeys with outlets that are synergistic to the brand’s vision and mission?” she asked. “Or is a broad ‘everyone come see us’ approach the best?”
“AI is the wake-up call to the ad industry to take a breath and rearticulate strategy from what the purpose of spend is going to be to which tools are going to be employed in the service of that purpose,” she observed.
NewsGuard noted in its report that although the AI-generated sites in its analysis were low quality, they weren’t spreading misinformation.
However, on one occasion, it found advertisements for two U.S. streaming video services, an office-supply company, a Japanese automaker, a global bank based in New York, a pet supplier, a vitamin shop, a diet company, and a vacuum manufacturer on MedicalOutline.com, a UAIN website that has promoted unproven and potentially harmful natural health remedies.
Headlines at the site included “Can lemon cure skin allergy?”, “What are 5 natural remedies for ADHD?” and “How can you prevent cancer naturally.”
Advertising at these sites from respected companies can have a harmful impact on consumers. “Blue chip brands appearing on these sites add legitimacy to the site,” Miller noted. “Seeing a brand someone recognizes on a site peddling lies can be wildly detrimental.”
The mountains of content these low-quality sites produce can create another problem for consumers. “It adds a layer of complexity when it comes to how people can make sense of what is disinformation,” explained Vincent Raynauld, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College in Boston.
“When people evaluate information, they consider the source of the information, the channel in which the information is being circulated, and the quality of the information,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Adding AI to produce content makes it more difficult to make sense of the information that’s out there.”
“AI will be a boon to the misinformation industry,” he said. “AI will make it easier for organizations to pump out misinformation or disinformation very quickly.”
“What concerns me is this stuff is going to start moving up the food chain,” added Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
“We’re already seeing how legitimate news organizations are trying to take advantage of AI,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “They’re not going to be as careless as these content farms are, but you know people are going to lose their jobs, and mistakes are going to be made.”