Does programmatic advertising have an alt-right problem?

The election introduced many Americans to the alt-right faction of the conservative movement and, right along with it, the growing influence of ad tech on online media.

The alt-right is a loosely knit group of people with an ideology farther to the right than mainstream conservatism — one that critics like the Southern Poverty Law Center have claimed is little more than a glorified rebranding of white nationalism, with dollops of racism and anti-Semitism.

But as the dust settles after the recent election of Donald Trump, the alt-right has acquired a platform, most visibly perhaps in the form of Breitbart News. Its torchbearers also include other sites with more extreme views: Richard Spencer, founder of Alternative Right, which calls itself the founding site of the alt-right, has said, “There are races who, on average, are going to be superior.” Another alt-right site, American Renaissance, states that: “One of the most destructive myths of modern times is that people of all races have the same average intelligence.” (Twitter has recently suspended Spencer’s account, along with other alt-right figures.)

Along with sales of books and T-shirts, these sites sustain themselves in part by ads that have made their way there through programmatic channels. Google serves ads on millions of sites, so it’s not surprising to find alt-right sites among them. An examination of dozen of these sites turned up ads served by Google, from national brands including American Express, Sprint and Walgreens. Google, along with Facebook, has said it’s taking steps to remove its ads from fake news sites, but didn’t specifically address alt-right ones.

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AmEx ad running on VDare

The presence of these ads shows just how easy it is for a site, incendiary or not, to turn on the advertising tap in the age of automated advertising. Breitbart, for one, makes its inventory available on five supply-side platforms on mobile alone, said Michael Collins, CEO of Adelphic, a programmatic buyer.

On the advertiser side, there are companies like Grapeshot that they can use to weed out sites that are objectionable for whatever reason, but sites can slip by and get on an ad buy anyway if the advertiser hasn’t been discriminating enough. This is more likely to happen with retargeted ads because their chief goal is to follow specific people around the web, regardless of the site they may land on. Also, a publisher can sign up for an ad network with a legitimate site, then sneak additional sites into the network.

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Walgreens ad on Radix

“It becomes a lot easier for buyers to lose a degree of control over where their ads run,” said Ari Paparo, CEO of Beeswax, a bidder of online inventory. “A marketer may use a whitelist, or a verification vendor to protect against running on objectionable sites, but it is an inexact science and a site that is offensive but not obviously a hate/porn/illegal site might pass unless someone is specifically looking to block it.” And policing sites like these is tricky because “objectionable” is often in the eye of the beholder.

The role of ad tech here is tricky. Editorial judgment isn’t usually core to what these companies do — even Facebook, with its size, seems unwilling or able to keep fake news from showing up in the news feed — and let’s face it, even those who hold extreme political views are consumers, too.

Jenn Lee, director of programmatic strategy at native programmatic platform TripleLift, said she has a team that audits every article that comes through its platform, but has no control over the host publisher’s own content. They may flag a certain publisher by saying, “Hey, our advertisers don’t want to show up next to stuff like this.” For self-serve ad tech, policing is harder or nonexistent. As a business development executive at one such ad tech firm, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Brands can leverage our tech through the platforms. We can’t block them and we can’t stop them.”

Finally, even if Facebook and Google succeed in weeding these sites out of their ad networks, there are other exchanges or SSPs that may be willing to look the other way or will just have less technology and capability to clamp down, Paparo said. “The industry has made great progress on improving quality around these issues over the last several years, but there’s always some outlier who will monetize the bad stuff.”

And not all advertisers may mind being on such sites. Readers of these sites are consumers, too. After all, nearly 61 million people voted for Donald Trump, and a site like Breitbart attracted 19.2 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore.

“While brand safety is important and while it’s important not to have your ad on a site that has extreme views, there are people who are reading it and they are a segment of your customers,” said Ali Shah, founder of Adfits, an ad network based on reader loyalty to sites and advertisers.

Ultimately, for the ad supply to such sites to dry up, it’ll come down not just to Google and other ad networks but to the advertisers to tighten up their programmatic ad-buying practices. The trend is moving in that direction. Even as advertisers dump more money into programmatic, they’re growing more concerned with where their money is going. In a survey, about 60 percent of marketers cited inventory transparency as a challenge, up from about 42 percent two years ago.

“There are certainly strong market pressures to make sure content is appropriate for the brand that choose to place their ads there,” Collins said. “Transparency is becoming more and more important.”

Brian Braiker contributed reporting.