As we hurtle toward one of the most consequential election years of our lifetimes, major groups are warning of a huge risk on the horizon: mis- and disinformation.
That’s according to both the World Economic Forum and the Eurasia Group, which published separate but eerily similar reports on the biggest risks the world faces as we head into 2024.
With disinformation fueling division, the Eurasia Group warned that the upcoming US election will be “testing American democracy to a degree the nation hasn’t experienced in 150 years and undermining US credibility on the global stage.”
But that disinformation isn’t coming out of nowhere. There’s a business model that fuels it — the global ad tech market, which is expected to be worth $2.9 trillion by 2031, according to Forbes.
Thanks to an almost total lack of transparency in this industry, disinformation is profitable. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Here’s what’s at stake, according to some of the biggest thinkers out there.
What do these reports actually say?
The biggest challenge of 2024, the Eurasia Group wrote, is “the United States vs itself.”
The political risk consultancy warned in its report that “public trust in core institutions—such as Congress, the judiciary, and the media—is at historic lows; polarization and partisanship are at historic highs.
“Add algorithmically amplified disinformation to the mix, and Americans no longer believe in a common set of settled facts about the nation and the world.”
That’s a scary thought ahead of an incredibly important election — and the Eurasia Group isn’t alone in that concern.
The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2024 — which surveyed 1,500 experts around the world — painted a picture of a treacherous road ahead with “optimism” in “short supply.”
The biggest short-term risk the experts outlined was “the spread of mis- and disinformation around the globe.”
This “could result in civil unrest, but could also drive government-driven censorship, domestic propaganda and controls on the free flow of information,” the WEF website summarized.
It could have a serious impact on elections around the world in 2024, which are set to take place in several countries, including Bangladesh, Mexico, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“The widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments,” the WEF warned. “Resulting unrest could range from violent protests and hate crimes to civil confrontation and terrorism.”
What do ads have to do with this?
While the takeaways are terrifying, we can tackle disinformation targeting voters. Because disinformation is a business, and its revenue source is ads.
Programmatic advertising — the automation of buying and selling ads — has let companies introduce so many middlemen and layers to the ad-buying process that brands often have no idea what their ad spend is funding.
When you consider that the global ad tech industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars right now — and that as much as 3 percent of programmatic ad buys go toward an “unknown” — that’s a lot of money disappearing into the ether.
We’ve caught disinformation grifters sticking their hands into this cookie jar, swiping ad dollars from brands that want nothing to do with their websites.
Consider Breitbart, a site full of racism and disinformation that brands including BMW have publicly said they don’t want to advertise on. How was it still serving BMW retailer ads in December?
Because bad actors know how this incredibly technical process works and use its complexity to profit. One way they game the system is by pooling together their inventory and hiding their icky websites behind brand-safe fronts.
Google and other ad exchanges are accomplices in the disinformation-for-profit business. Google controls most of the automated ad-buying-and-selling processes. It requires next-to-no transparency from the websites it works with, and regularly fails to enforce its own policies. We even caught Google profiting from scammers selling fake Shark Tank diet pills.
We don’t know if Google’s failures are because it doesn’t care or because it has lost control of its near-monopoly on the advertising ecosystem. But it doesn’t matter because the effect is the same: It makes disinformation profitable.
And that disinformation is threatening elections around the world.
But by holding ad exchanges accountable and empowering advertisers by pushing for greater transparency, we can close off the paths that make disinformation profitable.
And just maybe save democracy in the process.