by Oliver Hayes,
Policy and Campaigns Lead
3 min read
Children’s experiences of fake news and unreliable content online are – according to the people behind Safer Internet Day – often linked to adverts and advertising. Young people said they saw:
"I see a lot of Fake News content, a lot of fake celebrity gossip, fake gossip (general)"
"Adverts on webpages showing celebrities with extreme weight loss transformations and stuff like that."
"Adverts and pop ups or even occasionally strangers messages and such."
"Ppl on tiktok making up news, conspiracy theories…"
It’s a powerful reminder that advertising is not peripheral to misinformation and disinformation on the internet. It’s integral to it.
The popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma spelled out the three goals driving all the major internet platforms: growth (more people), engagement (more attention), and advertising (more money). Making more money is the bottom line, so user growth and engagement are really in service of greater ad revenue. Which is a fancy way of saying every website in the world wants more people to visit it, spend more time there, see more ads, and make the website more money. That’s just how the modern web works.
But too often the discussion about safety and trust online ignores advertising altogether.
Online advertising – specifically targeted or ‘behavioural’ advertising – is the hub from which every spoke of internet harms is connected. Extreme content, hate speech and incitement to violence are – in the narrow terms of web platforms’ business model – great for business. Platforms know (as do the algorithms that power them) that the more extreme or controversial the content, the further and faster it spreads, leading to more people spending more time being served more ads as they gorge on misinformation.
Advertisers cannot legitimately claim to be unaware of this. They very likely are sincere when they express outrage at their ads appearing alongside such content. But a whack-a-mole approach – blacklisting certain sites or keywords – is never going to work while ads are served to the individual, wherever they are on the web (behavioural advertising), rather than placed deliberately alongside specific content (contextual advertising).
Put simply, if you’re a brand and you are only placing your ads on websites you trust, it is highly unlikely you will be funding misinformation or worse.
If advertisers are serious about not wishing to be complicit in fuelling misinformation, subjecting young people to lies, hateful content and dangerous conspiracy theories, then they need to turn their backs on behavioural advertising. Lawmakers should do the same – the upcoming ‘Online Safety Bill’ (enacting the Government’s response to the Online Harms White Paper) must be expanded to ban behavioural advertising to under 18s at the very least.
Advertising can itself be a direct source of harm, too. Safer internet day wants to “explore how influence, persuasion and manipulation can impact young people’s decisions, opinions and what they share online”. That sounds like advertising in a nutshell!
Decades of research from academics like Professor Tim Kasser shows that manipulation of young people via advertising doesn’t just persuade them to buy products or be loyal to a certain brand. On a much deeper level, the materialistic values in adverts – glamourising wealth, physical appearance, high status and the endless acquisition of material goods – reinforce behaviours that are damaging to young people’s wellbeing and to the natural world.
In short, most advertising makes us less happy and harms the planet.
I hope that in Safer Internet Days to come, we’ll be starting to build an internet whose business model has been fundamentally re-engineered to incentivise personal wellbeing, planetary health, and great, reliable content.
That can only happen if behavioural advertising is killed off, replaced by contextual ads that serve publishers, advertisers and web users alike. But it may also need to be an online world where there is simply much less advertising altogether.