10 Terrible Things About Adtech

Automated Arbitrage Algorithms Conditioned You to This Sensational Clickbait Headline

David Carroll
Jan 9, 2017 · 7 min read

Anyone familiar with my research and commentary knows I’m no fan of adtech, the hidden layer of behavioral ad targeting arbitrage that monetizes attention by the proxy of impression-based economies of scale. The perverse incentives that ensue from this hidden code incentivizes unregulated marketing surveillance over the populace to glut their feeds with more worldview reinforcing hyperpartisan propaganda and disinformation than high-quality investigative journalism. Here are ten deeply concerning things about the world of adtech as I’ve been observing recently, especially thinking about election fallout.


  1. It’s terrible for buying attention. $1 ad dollar yields 3¢ of advertiser value.

References and Notes

The references hyperlinked above are embedded here with additional notes.

1. Yield

Most would agree adtech is terrible as in dysfunctional, decrepit, subprime, and unfortunately the only reliable method of monetizing attention on the web. But economically speaking, how bad is it? It is even worth the trouble?

2. Fraud

Wanamaker’s Rule should be considered a law. Digital advertising’s original promise was to solve the 50% waste. Fraud and adblocking is the new breakage. But Wanamaker strikes back. You still don’t know where half of your ad spending goes. Where does the digital ad money go? Some recirculates within the industry as it looks the otherway, but plenty certainly flows to organize crime.

3. Methbot

An ad fraud operation at large enough scale finally caught the attention of the media engine it has been cheating.

4. Adtech Signatures

In search of an objective mechanism to differentiate between legitimate news sources and “fringe” sites, Mezzobit discovered that a distinct adtech signature can be visualized and analyzed to prove it. I’ve theorized that this indicates how real news costs real money, forcing legit publishers to maximize their use of adtech to monetize their pages. Meanwhile, pure propaganda sites seem to use adtech as part of its camouflage to look legit.

5. Adtech and Russian Election Interference

What sites were named by the US Gov report? How does this implicate the US adtech companies that participate in profiting and disseminating pages produced to undermine our democratic process?

6. Promiscuous Tracking

Consumers do not understand how their devices are connecting their data across so many boundaries that defy their expectations.

7. Adtech Lobby Aggression and Deception on Consumer Privacy

The industry went “nuclear” on its intent to fight democratically enacted limits to its surveillance capabilities.

This is despite the fact that their self-regulation is an abject failure.

Not only is it confusing to consumers, but AdChoices is also deceptive.

8. Politics of Programmatic

Election fallout includes new attention and focus from consumers on the automated attention arbitrage markets called “programmatic” adtech. Consumers were never supposed to know that programmatic exists, let alone send screenshots of offending ads directly to brands on Twitter in outrage.

9. Adtech Powered Voter Surveillance and Psyop

There are adtech savants in the White House now. Can democracy survive a continuous onslaught of weaponized advertising?

10. Duopoly vs. Democracy

Did Silicon Valley trigger Trump? Was this not only the first post-truth election, but also the first post-privacy election?

In response to an article about translating Instagram’s privacy policy for parents

But there’s still so much to learn about what can be inferred from our behaviors and how our data is used to construct our identities without our knowledge and control.

Thanks for reading.

You can request your data from Cambridge Analytica. Thanks to Paul-Olivier Dehaye for being on top of this.

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David Carroll

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Associate Professor of Media Design at Parsons School of Design @THENEWSCHOOL http://dave.parsons.edu