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Sponsored listings are a ripoff…for sellers

Sponsored listings are a ripoff…for sellers

Cory Doctorow

Not all ads are created equally sleazy. The privacy harms from surveillance ads, though real, are often hard to pin down. But there’s another kind of ad – or “ad” that picks your pocket every time you use an e-commerce site.

This is the “sponsored listing” ad, which allows merchants to bid to be among the top-ranked items in response to your searches – whether or not their products are a good match for your query. These aren’t “ads” in the way that, say, a Facebook ad is an ad. These are more #payola, a form of bribery that’s a crime (but not when Amazon does it):

Amazon is the global champion of payola. It boasts of $31 billion in annual “ad” revenue. That’s $31 billion that Amazon sellers have to recoup from you. But Amazon’s use of “most favored nation” deals (which requires sellers to offer their lowest prices on Amazon) means that you don’t see those price-hikes because sellers raise their prices everywhere:

Forget Twitter: Amazon search is the poster child for enshittification, in which Amazon locks you in (for example, with a year’s shipping prepaid through Prime) and then you get recommended worse products while sellers make less money and Amazon pockets the difference.

Sellers who don’t sell on Amazon are dead in the water because most US households have Amazon Prime, and overwhelmingly, Prime users start their search on Amazon, and if they find the goods they’re seeking. After all, they’ve prepaid for shipping.

So sellers suck it up and pay a 45-51% Amazon tax and pass it on to us – no matter where we shop. A lot of the junk fees sellers pay are related to Prime and other fulfillment services, but an increasing share of the Amazon tax comes from the need to pay to “advertise,” because if they don’t buy the top result for searches for their products, their competitors’ ads will push them right off the first page (those competitors spend money on advertising, rather than manufacturing quality).

There’s a lot of YOLO/ROFLMAO in those ads: search for “cat beds” and 50% of the first five screens are ads – including ads for dog products, apparently bought by companies adopting a spray-and-pray approach to advertising. Someone selling a quality product still has to outbid all of those garbage sellers:

This is at the root of Amazon’s Pricing Paradox: while Amazon can defend itself against regulators by citing sellers whose prices are lower and/or whose quality is higher, it’s nearly impossible for shoppers to get those deals. If you click the top result for your search, you will, on average, pay 29% more than you would if you found the best bargain on the site:

What’s more, you can’t fix this by simply sorting by price, by reviews, or some mix of the two. The sleaziest sellers have mastered tricks like changing the number of units they sell so the total price is lower. For example, if batteries are normally sold at $10 for a four-pack, a sleazy seller can offer batteries at $9 for three units. The lowest-to-highest price sort will put this item ahead of a cheaper rival.

Researchers found that getting a good deal at Amazon requires that you make a multifactorial spreadsheet by laboriously copying/pasting multiple details from individual listing pages and then doing sorts that Amazon itself doesn’t permit:

There’s an exception to this: Amazon and Apple have a cozy, secret arrangement to exclude these “ads” from searches for Apple products. But if you’re shopping for anything else, you’re SOL:

These payola markets are bad for buyers, and they cost sellers a lot of money, but are they at least good for sellers? A new study from three business school researchers – Vibhanshu Abhishek, Jiaqi Shi, and Mingyu Joo – shows that payola is a very bad deal for good sellers, too:

After doing a lot of impressive quantitative work, the authors conclude that for good sellers, showing up as a sponsored listing makes buyers trust their products less than if they floated to the top of the results “organically.” This means that buying an ad makes your product less attractive than not buying an ad.

The exception is sellers who have bad products – products that wouldn’t rise to the top of the results on their own merits. The study finds that if you buy your mediocre product’s way to the top of the results, buyers trust it more than they would if they found it buried deep on page eleventy-million, to which its poor reviews, quality, or price would normally banish it.

But of course, if you’re one of those good sellers, you can’t simply opt not to buy an ad, even though seeing it with the little “AD” marker in the thumbnail makes your product less attractive to shoppers. If you don’t pay the Danegeld, your product will be pushed down by the inferior products whose sellers are only too happy to pay ransom.

It’s a system where everybody loses – except monopoly e-commerce platforms, who enshittify everything and rake it in.

The Lobbyists Who Don’t Want A Ceasefire

Why do polls show a majority of Americans support a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and yet only 18 members of the U. S. House are officially supporting a resolution calling for such a ceasefire?

What explains that huge gap between what the public wants and what Congress wants? Part of the answer has to do with how America’s political discourse has been deliberately polarized by conservative groups like AIPAC, the pro-Netanyahu lobbying group seeking to equate support for Israel’s fundamental right to exist with support for the specific policies of Israel’s current right-wing government. These groups publicly equate opposition to such policies to anti-semitism, polarizing the national conversation and demonizing Democrats who question Israel’s policies. 12 House Democrats, Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Jared Moskowitz (FL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL), Lois Frankel (FL), Jared Golden (ME), Juan Vargas (CA), Angie Craig (MN), Darren Soto (FL), Haley Stevens (MI), Frederica Wilson (FL), Don Davis (NC) and Greg Landsman (OH). have accepted a combined $8 million in campaign support from AIPAC and its affiliates in the last year.

In the 2022 midterm elections, AIPAC and what was effectively its campaign arm, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), outspent all comers to oust Democratic primary candidates who’d dared to criticize the Israeli right, most particularly liberal Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, who was also president of his local synagogue, and who surely spoke for most Jewish Democrats in criticizing Israeli governments in general for abridging Palestinian rights, and the ultra-Orthodox in Bibi’s coalition in particular for pushing for a more theocratic state. What was notable about DMFI’s campaigns was that the attack ads they ran didn’t focus on Israel at all—they often involved themselves in districts that weren’t heavily Jewish—but on whatever else they could come up with, verifiable or otherwise.

The fate of Andy Levin doubtless troubles the sleep of Schiff, Porter, the Democrats’ House leadership, and probably even the White House. Like those Florida retirees, Biden is also old enough to remember when Israel was the cynosure of liberals’ eyes. What’s left of that Israel, last week’s letters point out, may soon crash and burn. Democrats are calling on the president, forcefully if implicitly, to do more to avert that catastrophe.

Read further

Good News


Work for justice, but pause to celebrate
We are aware that atrocious, inhumane events are happening both at home and abroad. Because of this, though celebration may seem superficial, it is crucial to recognize that our efforts are leading to the change we seek. While we work for justice, let us also pause to acknowledge the considerable good that pervades our goals and communities.


Celebrate good news

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Some very special people help make our lists of good news and positive actions possible. Thank you, patrons! Join them to get the good news a week early! Learn more here.

— Jen Hofmann and the AoCC team

Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.

Plastic is cheap to make and shockingly profitable. It’s everywhere. And we’re all paying the price.

Plastic, and the profusion of waste it creates, can hide in plain sight, a ubiquitous part of our lives we rarely question. But a closer examination of the situation can be shocking.

Currently, about 430 million tons of plastic is produced yearly, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)—significantly more than the weight of all human beings combined. One-third of this total takes the form of single-use plastics, which humans interact with for seconds or minutes before discarding.

“The amount of plastic on our planet—it’s like one big oil spill.”

A total of 95% of the plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, a loss to the economy of up to $120 billion annually, concludes a report by McKinsey. (Just over a quarter of all plastics are used for packaging.) One-third of this packaging is not collected, becoming pollution that generates “significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean.” This causes at least $40 billion in damages, the report states, which exceeds the “profit pool” of the packaging industry. One paper estimated that the average person consumes five grams of plastic every week—mostly from water. About 95% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated. Microplastics are also widely found in beer, salt, shellfish, and other human foods.

In the United States, only about 5% to 6% of plastics are being recycled each year.

Notably, what doesn’t get reused or recycled does not chemically degrade but rather becomes a fixture of our world; it breaks apart to form microplastics, pieces smaller than five millimeters in diameter. In the past few years, scientists have found significant quantities of microplastics in the further reaches of the ocean; in snow and rainfall in seemingly pristine places worldwide; in the air we breathe; and in human blood, colons, lungs, veins, breast milk, placentas, and fetuses.

The solution to that problem lies further upstream: to address plastic pollution, those who produce plastics need to pay for the damage it causes, and the world will also have to make less of it. We’ll have to develop better, more recyclable products. We’ll also have to find sustainable alternatives and increase what ecologists call circularity—keeping those products in use as long as possible and finding ways to reuse their materials after that.


Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.

Good news


Here at CounterPoint, we sort through the 24/7 fire hose of news to try to bring attention to under-heard voices of reason. We’ll continue to do that, but it’s just as important to celebrate good news whenever we can. We’re so grateful to activist Jennifer Hofmann and her Americans of Conscience volunteers for their dedication to turning bad news into positive action.


Here’s a recent sample:

Go, Iris Mogul!

Iris Mogul, a high school student who started a banned books club, is photographed with one of her favorite books during the “Walk for Freadom” kickoff event on Sunday, October 1, 2023 in Coral Gables, Florida. The march began at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ and ended at Books & Books. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.comRead more at:

Iris Mogul, a high school student who started a banned books club, is photographed with one of her favorite books during the “Walk for Freadom” kickoff event on Sunday, October 1, 2023, in Coral Gables, Florida. The march began at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ and ended at Books & Books. Carl Juste


Since she was little, Iris Mogul has always loved reading.

When The 16-year-old junior at the Academy Academy for Advanced Academics in South Florida learned that her English teacher was considering not teaching a Toni Morrison book because of the state’s political environment, she decided to start a banned book club.

There were 300 books removed from Florida schools last year, according to a list released by the Florida Department of Education. Nationally, the American Library Association found that the number of books facing challenges for censorship is up 20 percent for the first eight months of this year compared to 2022. That includes more than 800 books in school districts across 37 states.

“It was kind of like a double whammy because it’s like an act of resistance… and it’s a way to start a book club and talk to people,” said Mogul, a student in a dual enrollment program at Florida International University. As part of Florida’s expanded “Parental Rights in Education” law, one parent or community member can object to instructional material or a school library book. The law, signed in May, requires the book or materials to be removed within five days of the objection and remain unavailable to students until the issue is resolved. More books were pulled from shelves in Florida public schools than in any other state last school year.

With everything that’s going on in the world right now, we really appreciate being able to share a bit of positive news…

Did Facebook enable global political manipulation?

Listen to the story:


When Sophie Zhang went public with explosive revelations detailing the political manipulation she’d uncovered during her time as a data scientist at Facebook, she supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: that Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.

On her last day, hours after she posted her memo internally, Facebook deleted it (though they later restored an edited version after widespread employee anger). A few hours later, an HR person called her, asking her to also remove a password-protected copy she had posted on her personal website. She tried to bargain: she would do so if they restored the internal version. The next day, instead, she received a notice from her hosting server that it had taken down her entire website after a complaint from Facebook. A few days after that, it took down her domain as well.

These are some of the biggest revelations in Zhang’s memo:

  • It took Facebook’s leaders nine months to act on a coordinated campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people.” Two weeks after Facebook took action against the perpetrators in July, they returned, leading to a game of “whack-a-mole” between Zhang and the operatives behind the fake accounts, which are still active.
  • In Azerbaijan, Zhang discovered the ruling political party “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse.” Facebook began looking into the issue a year after Zhang reported it. The investigation is ongoing.
  • Zhang and her colleagues removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections.”
  • In February 2019, a NATO researcher informed Facebook that “he’d obtained Russian inauthentic activity on a high-profile U.S. political figure that we didn’t catch.” Zhang removed the activity, “dousing the immediate fire,” she wrote.
  • In Ukraine, Zhang “found inauthentic scripted activity” supporting both former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a pro–European Union politician and former presidential candidate, as well as Volodymyr Groysman, a former prime minister and ally of former president Petro Poroshenko. “Volodymyr Zelensky and his faction was the only major group not affected,” Zhang said of the current Ukrainian president.
  • Zhang discovered inauthentic activity — a Facebook term for engagement from bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts— in Bolivia and Ecuador but chose “not to prioritize it,” due to her workload. The amount of power she had as a mid-level employee to make decisions about a country’s political outcomes took a toll on her health.
  • After becoming aware of coordinated manipulation on the Spanish Health Ministry’s Facebook page during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang helped find and remove 672,000 fake accounts “acting on similar targets globally” including in the US.
  • In India, she worked to remove “a politically sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence” the local elections taking place in Delhi in February. Facebook never publicly disclosed this network or that it had taken it down.

By speaking out and eschewing anonymity, Zhang risked legal action from the company, harm to her future career prospects, and perhaps even reprisals. Her story reveals that it is really pure luck that we now know so much about how Facebook enables election interference globally. To regulators around the world considering how to rein in the company, this should be a wake-up call.


She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.

Social Media is a (Largely) Lawless Cesspool

Governments from Pakistan to Mexico to Washington are woefully unequipped to combat disinformation warfare. Eastern European countries living in Russia’s shadow can teach us how to start fighting back, but only if our politicians decide to stop profiting from these tactics and fight them instead.


Suzanne Smalley

Governments from Pakistan to Mexico to Washington are woefully unequipped to combat disinformation warfare. Eastern European countries living in Russia’s shadow can teach us how to start fighting back, but only if our politicians decide to stop profiting from these tactics and fight them instead.

A screenshot from a video shared widely on social media purporting to show a Hamas fighter downing a helicopter, which is actually pulled from the video game Arma 3.

Video game clips purporting to be footage of a Hamas fighter shooting down an Israeli helicopter. Phony X accounts spreading fake news through fictitious BBC and Jerusalem Post “journalists.” An Algerian fireworks celebration is described as Israeli strikes.

These are just a few examples of the disinformation swirling around the conflict between Hamas and Israel, much of which has been enabled by X, formerly known as Twitter, and by platforms like Meta and Telegram.

The platforms have also been used to terrorize. In one instance, a girl found out that a militant had killed her grandmother after he broadcast it on a Facebook livestream. Meta did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

X owner Elon Musk promoted two particularly virulent accounts spreading disinformation in a post that was viewed 11 million times before Musk deleted the tweet a few hours later.

One of those accounts, @sentdefender, was described by Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR) expert Emerson Brooking as both “absolutely poisonous” and often retweeted “uncritically.”

Read More: Hacktivists take sides in the Israel-Palestinian war

X removed some of the most blatantly fake tweets, often hours after they were posted, but purveyors of disinformation like @sentdefender still operate freely.

A spokesperson for X replied to a request for comment by saying to “check back later.”

The platform announced changes to its public interest policy over the weekend, according to a post on its safety channel. The post said X has seen an increase in “daily active users” based in the conflict area in the past few days and that more than 50 million posts worldwide have discussed the attack.

The use of video game and recycled news footage to spread false information about the conflict is a growing trend, making it even more difficult to root out disinformation, according to Dina Sadek, a Middle East research fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“We’re laser-focused and dedicated to protecting the conversation on X and enforcing our rules as we continue to assess the situation on the platform,” they said.

The post said X will remove newly created Hamas-affiliated accounts. It also said it is coordinating with industry peers and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) “to try and prevent terrorist content from being distributed online.”

X said it is “proactively monitoring” for anti-semitic accounts and has “actioned” tens of thousands of posts sharing graphic media and violent and hateful speech.

On Tuesday, European Commissioner Thierry Breton sent a letter to Musk, cautioning that X is spreading “illegal content and disinformation.” EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) mandates that large online platforms such as X remove illegal content and take steps to quickly address how they impact the public.

“Given the urgency, I also expect you to be in contact with the relevant law enforcement authorities and Europol, and ensure that you respond promptly to their requests,” Breton wrote. He advised Musk that he would be following up on matters related to X’s compliance with DSA.

“I urge you to ensure a prompt, accurate, and complete response to this request within the next 24 hours,” Breton said.

The difficulty of rooting out disinformation is made more difficult by the growing trend of using video games and recycled news footage to promote falsehoods about the conflict, said Dina Sadek, a Middle East research fellow with DFR. Telegram has been a major vehicle for disinformation, she added, likely because it doesn’t restrict how often users can post and because the content is sent as a text message.

List of social platforms with at least 100 million active users

“The second that you think something happened you can give them a boost and give them pictures from the incident,” she told The Record. “There’s just the speed of how things happen when on messaging applications and some of those have large numbers of subscribers.”

Sadek said it is too soon to detect patterns in the disinformation being disseminated — both in terms of the amount and which side’s supporters are most active — but she said she has seen it emanate from all sides of the conflict.

Stanford disinformation scholar Herb Lin told Recorded Future News that he predicts the propaganda war will intensify significantly in the coming weeks, citing Russia’s likely support to Hamas due to its friendly relationship with Iran.

“They have a quick reaction disinformation force,” he said. “They have the ability to react promptly to this sort of stuff and the first people to get on the air tend to dominate the messages for a while.”

Learn more:

Democracy in Distress: Unpacking America’s 5 Top Threats 

Threat 1: Cynicism and Apathy

Opposite sides of the same coin, cynicism and apathy are the reasons many Americans are not taking action right now. In a democracy, if we don’t use it, we lose it. The challenge is getting people to care enough to speak up and be part of the solutions. In the first of five articles, learn the single, most effective way to overcome cynicism and apathy—others and your own.

Threat 2: Misinformation

Have you noticed how friends and family are resistant to correct information? The current state of siloed news in the U.S. is profoundly toxic to our democracy. Yet there are ways to share accurate information that cuts through resistance. Learn all about what works in week two.

Threat 3: Hate

Abuse aimed at people of different races, economic statuses, genders, religions, etc. is an abject failure of our society. While hate might seem intractable, it isn’t. In the third week, we’ll introduce you to straightforward solutions that stop hatred at its root, creating a kinder, more equitable nation.

Threat 4: Uncivil discourse

Collaboration is the key ingredient that makes democracy work. Disrespect and disdain kill it. We cannot tolerate extreme views, but most Americans have positive overlaps in their political Venn diagrams; The trick is learning to find them. In week four, learn techniques that restore trust, civility, and collaboration—in our neighborhoods to Congress.

Threat 5: News and social media

The myriad outlets that keep us informed can also cause apathy, cynicism, and overwhelm. Corporate advertising plays to our fears by design, decreasing the quality and depth of information we need to understand important issues. In the final week, discover new strategies that keep you in control as a consumer of news media and informed as an engaged citizen.

What’s next

As we gear up for the next presidential primaries and election, there’s no time like the present to take an active part in your nation’s future. Addressing these threats strategically with thoughtful, doable steps can create the welcoming country we know is possible. In the coming weeks, look for clear ways to speak up and show up for ourselves, each other, and future generations:

Republicans are “this close” to ending Social Security


Republicans are “this close” — just a matter of months away — from ending Social Security, a goal they’ve worked toward ever since 1935. They hope to use six Republicans on a corrupted Supreme Court to get there.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse points out, in his book The Scheme and his YouTube series about the same, that American oligarchs launched a campaign to seize control of the Supreme Court — and, thus, the American government — over 40 years ago, and they are now close to their goal of turning America back to the 1920s.

“This case is the product of a decades-long effort by pro-corporate interests to eviscerate the federal government’s regulatory apparatus, to the detriment of the American people.” Said Senators Whitehouse, Hirono, Feinstein, and Warren

Recently we learned from ProPublica reporting that Clarence Thomas has been the featured attraction at several multi-million-dollar fundraising events by the Koch brothers to marshal resources that could apparently be used, in part, to bring cases before the Supreme Court. In previous years, the late Antonin Scalia often joined him at these events.

Now that the billionaires have succeeded in packing the Court with six hard-right justices who are perfectly willing to ignore federal law about ethics on federal courts and enthusiastic to dance to their benefactors’ tunes, we’re getting close to the point that David Koch envisioned in 1980 when he ran for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket.

His platform was clear, calling for the end of the EPA and other regulatory agencies, and the privatization of the Post Office, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schools, libraries, and all the nation’s roads and rivers, among other things.

With two cases that the six corrupt Republicans on the Court will be hearing this fall, David could be getting his wish.

How the Billionaire Corruption of SCOTUS Could End Social Security – and America

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