Of The Model and Dark Pool Sales Houses, Vaccinationals and Urban(anti)vaxxals

MisDisMal-Information 28

What is this? This newsletter aims to track information disorder largely from an Indian perspective. It will also look at some global campaigns and research.

What this is not? A fact-check newsletter. There are organisations like Altnews, Boomlive, etc. who already do some great work. It may feature some of their fact-checks periodically.

Welcome to Edition 28 of MisDisMal-Information

I may have gone overboard with images/gifs in this edition. So if you are blocking images in your mail client, I recommend viewing this in a browser (or downloading content for this edition).

The Model, and Deep-See diving in Dark Pool Sales Houses

ooh, sounds ominous! What does all this mean?

Sorry, I am going to throw a lot of mumbo jumbo at you. But I’ll build it up in a way that makes sense.

First, let’s talk about the model..

No, not that one. Business Model

Not that either.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. The Business Model

In Edition 26 - Doom Profits, using Tim Hwang’s book - Subprime Attention Crisis, we covered how Opacity was a huge problem in Digital Advertising via standardisation and commodicification (screenshot recap).

Well, digital ad spends now seem to have surpassed other forms (in the U.S. at least). Yay?

And as Tim Hwang had highlighted, this ad-based model underpins the economy of the internet as we know it today - and shapes incentives, across the board. See this Tow Center report on platforms funding journalism and fact-checking during the pandemic.

And while a lot of people agree that the many of the problems caused by social media platforms are a consequence of their business models, it is surprising how little mainstream attention beats like adtech tend to get (you’ll see variants like ‘ad tech’, ‘ad-tech’, ‘ad:tech’ too).

P.S. It gets plenty of coverage as ‘trade’ beat. But that doesn’t always result in connecting it to the larger issues being debated in more mainstream coverage.

This is slowly starting to change, some of it as a consequence of pressurising companies using their business models.

Ok, Prateek, we get it - pay more attention to the *workings* of the business model. Easy peasy, right? Now, what?

Phew, you’re with me so far. But no, not easy, just look at Luma Partner’s illustration of the Display ads ecosystem - they call it Display LumaScape. This one makes my head spin.

(Image Source)

Ok, but where are the Deep Seas and Dark Pools?

Fine, you asked for it. Now this where things may get a little jargon-y.

Back in June/July 2020 - Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin’s newsletter Branded, published an edition based on their research along with Zach Edwards’ (his technical post) theorising how Breitbart could potentially still be making money even if advertisers chose to block it from serving their ads. I do recommend reading at least the first post, but let me include a few excerpts here)

Every website has a number of account IDs to identify them on ad exchanges. 

There are two types of account IDs: DIRECT and RESELLER

  • DIRECT IDs tell advertisers that they’re bidding directly on one website. 

  • RESELLER IDs tell advertisers that they’re bidding on inventory across multiple websites. 

Here’s an example, from say, NDTV (as part a standard defined in 2017, a pubisher is required this information at example.com/ads.txt - so in the case: ndtv.com/ads.txt):

Sometimes, media conglomerates share the same account ID across their owned websites. If Condé Nast wanted to, they could do this with Vanity Fair, WIRED, and Teen Vogue. To make it clear that they’re sharing account IDs, they label one website with a DIRECT label, and the others with a RESELLER label. This is called pooling, also known as a ‘sales house,’ and it’s generally acceptable because at the end of the day, it’s all done within the same organization

And here’s the key (italicised emphasis mine):

What outlets are not supposed to do, though, is share their DIRECT account ID with websites and companies that are completely unrelated to them. It’s not a direct sale, it mislabels the inventory, and it funnels advertiser money towards shared advertising accounts owned by unknown entities. That’s why we’re calling this dark pooling.

And finally, the dark pool sales house:

The mislabelling of DIRECT account IDs across websites means that these sites are sharing data (good for retargeting!) and ad revenues. One way to describe this grouping of DIRECT account IDs is a “sales house.” That makes these groupings “dark pool sales houses.”

I should clarify, that there was some pushback, which they linked to in their follow-up post.

I’ll summarise (along with some paraphrasing based on my own understanding):

1) The IAB (the body that develops industry standards) came out defending ads.txt stating that publishing this information in the ads.txt surfaces any malpractice rather than obscuring it. The tone was a little tongue-in-check and led to a not-so-friendly twitter exchange between them and Zach Edwards. This is all linked in their post.

2) As part of the standard, Ad Networks are also required to publish a file (called sellers.json) that makes their associations clear. This means, that someone can go to this file, and verify whether a publisher ID belongs to a certain company or not - and then determine if it has been mislabeled on a publisher’s ads.txt file. (Credit to Jay Pinho, whose tweet I discovered this through.)

3) Even these mislabeled entries, are not evidence of fraud themselves. It needs to be accompanied with a back-room deal of sorts (so that this ID is shared across multiple sites and they split the revenues). Why, you ask? Well, if you’re pushing out content where advertisers are going to be pressured to block you, it is better to add as much opacity as possible, no? But, as I said, this needs to be established. Until then, the reasons can vary on a scale from ‘intern copying whatever adtech partner sent them’ to ‘oops!’ and ‘Let’s be evil’.

Now, to the Deep-See.

Wait, didn’t you say Deep Sea?

No! That was you in the italics, remember? Anyway, DeepSee is a firm that sells services to combat ad-fraud (since this is, at heart, a policy-focused newsletter, just keep that in mind for the sake of tracking incentives). They published a deeper investigation into this phenomenon.

Globally, 10% of ads.txt enabled sites have 71 or more non-unique DIRECT entries.

“That’s pretty crazy,” we thought.

“Maybe this is an artifact of poorly ranked sites dragging us down(?)” we mused.

But, the data showed quite the opposite.

Ok, now it gets even more interesting.

As part of this research, they also published a file with the ‘top 15,000 most non-unique DIRECT ads.txt entries encountered globally’. From an admittedly not very thorough look, this is a list of some sites I saw on it. Many will seem familiar. And a more thorough search, will probably uncover many more.

  1. indiantelevision.org.in

  2. bollywoodhungama.com

  3. economictimes.indiatimes.com

  4. http://cricket.yahoo.net

  5. vijaykarnataka.indiatimes.com

  6. navbharatimes.com

  7. zeenews.india.com

  8. indiatodaygroup.com

  9. dnaindia.com

  10. m.hindustantimes.com

  11. indiatv.in

  12. timesofindia.com

  13. photogallery.indiatimes.com

  14. gadgetsnow.com

  15. businessinsider.in

  16. abplive.in

  17. suvarnanews.tv

  18. kannadaprabha.com

  19. thewirehindi.com

  20. hindi.theprint.in

  21. outlookindia.com

  22. hindi.timesnownews.com

  23. timesnownews.com

I went a little further. I picked a few news sites at random, then looked up a bunch of entries with DIRECT labels and cross-verified with what the Ad platforms put on their sellers.json files. (Yes, yes, I know. I have a healthy information diet!)

I am going to include some screenshots for now, and there is a viewable link to Evernote note here, where I jotted down some of this as I went through it. And while this is just a tiny sample, I do expect this to be consistent across most news sites. (Reminder to view web version or download images, if you haven’t done so already)

If you want to run these checks on your own, I have also listed the steps on the Evernote link mentioned earlier [obviously, this is based on compiling the efforts of the posts referenced earlier]. This cursory check tells us - mislabeling is non-zero.

Again, I will reiterate - this is not evidence of fraud in itself. Though, someone should reach out to them to understand why they may have mislabeled entries. Maybe someone from Newslaundry? Or The Ken? [who else doesn’t run ads?]

But, if this is not outright fraud, why does anyone care?

Well, this doesn’t mean there are no bad faith actions here. And because of the opacity and incentives - we neither know where in the ecosystem the diversion from the proposed standards are coming from, nor is there a reason for anyone else to particularly care.

And secondly, whether you agree with them or not, ‘defund’ efforts are getting attention. While, it is mainly directed at TV News Media for now, I do expect it to make their way to the web as well. In which case, transparency and compliance are relevant. Otherwise, we could very well be looking at these Dark Pool Sales Houses in India too.

Some more reads about ‘The Model’

  • This report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy - The Weaponised Web: Levers in the Digital Advertising Ecosystem.

  • Joan Donovan in Harvard Business Review on how social media platforms’ hunger for scale resulted in supercharging disinformation.

  • Daisuke Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu, for New York Times, about a preferential deal that Google may have given Facebook, based on a draft version of the antitrust complaint against Google filed by 10 states in the U.S. Google’s rebuttal about the complaint here.

  • And, Shoshana Wodinsky for Gizmodo on the ‘Butt Pyjamas’ and the ad network behind it.


Vaccinationals, Antivaxtionals and urban(anti)vaxals

Ok, I will try to stop the vaccine puns before I get jabbed in the shoulder. The first one is borrowed, and the other 2 are the type of epithets I expect to be conferred on those raising questions (if you’ve seen them in the wild, please let me know!).

But since the last edition, India’s vaccination drive kicked off (on 16th Jan).

  • Nearly 8 Lakh people have been vaccinated.

  • While there have been 4 deaths, authorities have not linked these to the vaccine and were said to be the result of co-morbidities (same link as pt 1).

  • TOI pegs the adverse events at 0.18% (dated 19th Jan). HT reports there were around 600, with 10 requiring hospitalisation.

  • The National Health minister has asked state and local authorities to refute "rumours and disinformation campaigns(Livemint).

  • TOI reports that misinformation is affecting turn out in Gurugram, Tamil Nadu.

    Over the past few days, virologist Dr T Jacob John has been receiving calls from the medical fraternity questioning the efficacy of the vaccine. “The hesitancy is because of a lack of information, trust and transparency. Some doctors want to know why there is no choice on which vaccine is administered,” he says.

So naturally, it hasn’t helped that advisories about when not to take a particularly vaccine came out AFTER the vaccination drive started or that health workers were given a consent form about a vaccine being in ‘clinical trial’ mode. Now couple this with news of adverse events and deaths (whether authorities link them to the vaccine or not) from India and around the world - some people will start assuming correlation = causation.

Again, I have little locus standi to comment on the science and the process, so I am going to reference another article by my colleague Dr. Shambhavi Naik very aptly titled ‘will indian scientific temper survive 2021’.

The COVID-19 vaccine approval process has been opaque, ambiguous and questionable. But the Drug Controller General of India refused to answer questions and the decision-making remains shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know who all constituted the subject expert committee that recommended the vaccine candidates for approval or the data that the candidates’ makers presented to secure it.

The process by itself has been shoddy – but well-educated experts labelling those demanding transparency as “anti-nationals” or “anti-vaxxers” has really hit the nail in the scientific temper coffin. Instead of building trust by releasing information about the approval process, the government and scientists have asked people to blindly trust them, and have been offended when that trust was not given.

Somewhere, we missed an opportunity to educate people about vaccine side-effects and adverse events as well as instil faith in the ability of the healthcare system to handle these events. As a rudimentary dipstick-analysis of sorts, let’s look at tweets from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare mentioning side-effects or adverse reactions in the context of COVID-19.

  1. Till 31-Dec-2020. No Tweets specific to COVID-19 vaccinations.

  2. From 01-Jan-2021 to 07-Jan-2021: No Tweets.

  3. From 08-Jan-2021 to 15-Jan-2021: 4 Tweets.

  4. From 16-Jan-2021 to 21-Jan-2021 (around noon): 1 Tweet.

This isn’t straightforward, of course, and there was always going to be a tradeoff to be made between priming people about the realities surrounding the rollout of vaccines with contracted development periods and potentially scoring a self-goal sowing doubt early on, I acknowledge that. But making public health a nationalism issue - was never going to be the right call because reality, when it hits, knows no nationality.

Meanwhile, I’ve set up some custom searches on Twitter to look for tweets pertaining to:

  • Vaccines, effects and India - link. The intent behind these filters was to track narratives around side-effects and adverse events.

  • Vaccines, religious references and India - link. These filters were meant to track narratives with religious/nationalistic references. Definitely, the uglier of the two.


Meanwhile in India

Also read:

  • Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci on deplatforming our way to the alt-tech ecosystem:

    by deplatforming toxic communities and sending them towards the alt-tech ecosystem, we may be reducing their influence, but also losing our ability to study their conversations. 

    This points to a larger lesson. Building a healthy social media ecosystem will be full of tradeoffs, and it’s important to understand and highlight them, not because the changes are necessarily wrong, but because examining and responding to tradeoffs will be crucial to ensuring well-meaning changes don’t cause us to take one step forward and two steps back. Alt-tech presents powerful questions about speech online. Is it better to exile toxic speech from popular platforms if it risks making communities even more extreme?

Post midnight update: I would like to thank Nick Clegg for publishing his post after I went to bed. But passive aggressive barbs aside - Facebook has referred Trump’s suspension to the Oversight Board. Which could be really interesting.

  • Evelyn Douek was calling for this, and somehow already has a post written up about what this could mean.

  • Read Daphne Keller’s tweets on this subject too:

  • Anyone know if they invoked the expedited review?

There could be additional updates on this story between the time the edition gets scheduled and reaches your inboxes.


Studies/Analyses

  • This should have been in last week’s edition, but here it is anyway. Joyojeet Pal and Ankur Sharma on the use of ‘antinational’ on Indian Politics Twitter [The Wire].

that while both the BJP and INC attack each other using ‘anti-national’, the INC focuses on the party, the RSS and a few key leaders including Narendra Modi, Sambit Patra and Amit Shah, or uses terms to target the BJP.

For the BJP, however, the most-used term is not the name of another party, but rather JNU, referring to the Jawaharlal Nehru University

  • 2 reports based on gender and disinformation.

    • EU Disinfo focusing on misogyny and misinformation in the context of COVID 19.

    • Gender in the context of Hybrid Threats[pdf link].

  • Oxford Internet Institute released the 2020 edition of its ‘Industrialised Disinformation’ report. The 2019 edition was called ‘Global Disinformation Disorder’.

    organized social media manipulation campaigns operate in 81 countries, up from 70 countries in 2019, with global misinformation being produced on an industrial scale by major governments, public relations firms and political parties.

    • India has moved from being classifed as ‘medium’ capacity in 2019 to ‘high’ capacity in 2020. Yay?

    • How are they defined?

      High cyber troop capacity involves large numbers of staff, and large budgetary expenditure on psychological operations or information warfare. There might also be significant funds spent on research and development, as well as evidence of a multitude of techniques being used. These teams do not only operate during elections but involve full-time staff dedicated to shaping the information space. High-capacity cyber troop teams focus on foreign and domestic operations. They might also dedicate funds to state-sponsored media for overt propaganda campaigns.

      Medium cyber troop capacity involves teams that have a much more consistent form and strategy, involving full-time staff members who are employed year-round to control the information space. These medium-capacity teams often coordinate with multiple actor types, and