Study: Mainstream sites have almost double the ad tech as fake news sites

The spread of fake and misleading news has shown a light on how its producers have thrived by plugging into the programmatic ad system.

But a new study shows that in fact, mainstream media sites are far bigger users of ad tech, which is blamed for eroding the user experience and ultimately contributing to ad blocking. Mezzobit, a tool that lets publishers audit ad tech on websites, found that mainstream news sites have almost twice as much third-party technology as the fake or misleading news sites.

For the study, Mezzobit took a list of 96 so-called propaganda sites compiled by researcher Jonathan Albright (Mezzobit calls them “opinionated news sites” to avoid being polarizing) and compared them to an equal number of mainstream sites from the Alexa top 100 and analyzed the ad and marketing tech used on them, including ad units, analytics beacons and tracking pixels.

Publishers on Albright’s list included sites associated with fake, misleading or ideological news. They often have legit-sounding names like ABCnews.com.co and The Political Insider but have published false stories claiming the Pope endorsed Donald Trump for president and that President Obama banned the Pledge of Allegiance.

Because they’re light on ad tech, the fake news sites actually have some attributes that are thought of as positive: The fake news sites tend to have lighter pages, so they ran 8 percent faster. The mainstream sites do more tracking, and dropped 129 percent more cookies (a median of 167 cookies per page), resulting in 19 percent more tracking, per the Mezzobit report.

As mainstream news sites tend to be more established and be run by older and more complex technology, they also are less likely than fake news sites to have adopted secure HTTPS protocol. Still, the mainstream sites rated 5 percent more usable, as measured by Google, because they’re likely to have bigger staffs of designers and user experience experts.

When it comes to the ad tech players, Mezzobit didn’t find much difference in the ones running on either type of site, the small differences mainly driven by the difference in sophistication between the site operators, CEO and co-founder Joe Galarneau said. For example, Krux and other DMPs were more prevalent on the mainstream sites, mainly because using DMPs requires more in-house data and ad ops expertise, he said.

The findings of the Mezzobit taxonomy are less about vindicating fake news sites and their brethren than quantifying how the two types of sites have differing business models and sophistication, though. Mainstream sites tend to be more established and ad-driven than the fake news sites. The goals may differ, too: The fake-news sites also may be less about making money and more about pushing an ideology.

A lot of these fake news sites have thrived by leveraging programmatic advertising by which advertisers often end up on these sites without their knowledge, despite the existence of blacklists and other tools. Recently, some projects have sprung up to identify fake news. One takeaway of the study is that it shows the underlying economics of legitimate news sites and could be a way for browsers and ad-buying platforms to identify illegitimate sites, said David Carroll, an ad tech expert and media professor at The New School.

“It shows that legitimate news operations are extremely expensive to operate and have to maximize the optimization potential,” he said. “They need to explore every potential to recoup the cost, whereas opinionated news is far cheaper to produce.”