It’s hard to imagine this wasn’t a centrally coordinated effort.
You probably have no interest in targeting online advertising to attract people who hate Jews, use the N-word, or react positively to terms like “Nazi” and “wetback.” Besides not caring to reach such fringe audiences, chances are you don’t advertise online.
But just in case you do have one or more of these very specific goals, BuzzFeed, ProPublica, and Daily Beast have determined for you where you could accomplish them. Put some naughty search terms into the advertising platforms at Google, Facebook, and Twitter. And presto: the algorithms in operation will give you lists of such words, and related repugnant expressions, with which to tailor your ad buys.
The downright peculiar thing about this information is that it all came out in a three-day period last week.
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BuzzFeed published its report on Google on 15 September. (BuzzFeed, you will remember, was at the center of the sudden Fake News theme in 2016. Which didn’t go so well in terms of the raw data BuzzFeed used.)
The Daily Beast posted its report about Twitter on 16 September.
The odds that three left-wing media sites spontaneously decided to “investigate” this arcane phenomenon at the exact same time are vanishingly low. (They even managed to share the workload, with no duplication of effort.)
In fact, given that Google partnered earlier this year with ProPublica and BuzzFeed to “us[e] machine learning to document ‘hate crimes and events’ in America,” the odds are even lower that Google was being tested by BuzzFeed on hate-word advertising unwittingly.
Well. You decide about that.
In each case, the media site’s investigative journalists performed a test to see what would happen if they tried to buy ads targeting bad-word audiences. They found that the ad platforms of the three Internet giants accepted their search-term inputs, and helpfully generated related – equally offensive – terms for expanded and/or refined ad targeting.
They were able to purchase advertising, and then see it run; proving, it seems, that the Internet Bigs don’t have blocks in place to prevent ad targeting based on these types of expressions.
Now, regarding that last point, intelligent commenters at the BuzzFeed article point out that it’s probably impossible to completely shut down all such potential uses of online advertising – if ad-buying remains automated and algorithm-assisted, that is.
And if it doesn’t remain automated, the cost of ad management to the major Internet platforms would skyrocket. With human gate-guards in the loop for a set of highly variable and granular decision factors, they’d have to make it so expensive to run ads that customers couldn’t afford to do it, and the whole concept of current Internet operation would be defeated.
But then, that last sentence is intriguing in itself.
When there is no apparent reason for three separate media sites to spontaneously investigate the exact same exceptionally particular hypothesis, at exactly the same time, you have to ask yourself why they did it. Is the point of this exercise to make people indignant about the ad targeting you can do on the Internet, and condition us to hate the monetization model for Internet operation?
Right now, there is a Google, a Facebook, and a Twitter available to you – platforms you can access without additional cost if you have an Internet connection – because the three companies earn billions from ad buyers. That’s how the major intermediation services on the Internet are funded: by advertising.
That’s also what keeps them independent of government dictation, regarding content and how they treat it.
But if you can be made disgusted by some of the incidental phenomena that come with the advertising model, you might just buy into the concept of centrally controlled search- and social-media services – supervised by noble government bureaucrats unmotivated by profit, and no doubt publicly funded by one mechanism or another.
You know how that will turn out for politically conservative media.
This is one theory. Maybe there are others. But note: the slant of political censorship at Google, Facebook, and Twitter is already to the left, and shifting further left every day. It’s not like left-wing activists need this exposure about bad-word advertising as leverage over the Internet Bigs, to drive them to the left. They’re headed left on their own steam already. More than that, they define “left” now, in a lot of ways. They are card-carrying, gold-certified leftist organizations. No one on the left needs more leverage over them.
This is about something else. Note this additional point: the sudden, out-of-the-blue bad-word test has erupted just at the time Facebook has disclosed the infamous ad buys from “Russian trolls” during the 2016 election cycle – and Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are investigating what Facebook has reported.
The overarching theme appears to be evolving into something like this: Bad people can buy bad ads for bad purposes on the Internet, and wash our brains until we vote for Donald Trump. We can’t have the Internet operated unsupervised by private enterprise anymore; it’s too dangerous. It will kill “democracy” by brainwashing us to hate and/or believe the wrong things. Government needs to do something about that.
It isn’t surprising that this would be the overarching theme. The theme was rolled out in January 2017, with the intelligence community report that basically claimed Russia had tried to do precisely what I just described during the 2016 election cycle: “undermine our democracy” with themes promoted online, until in our panic we hated Hillary and voted for Trump.
The sudden bad-word testing of the Internet Bigs and their ad platforms fits that narrative perfectly. It doesn’t logically fit any other. You may think this sounds silly now. But it’s extremely likely that within weeks, you will be talking about the dangers of an unsupervised Internet in just these terms – because the media will be posing “questions” about it. We live in interesting times.