skip to main content

Attention:

The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 5:00 PM ET until 11:00 PM ET on Friday, June 21 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.


Title: Ad Delivery Algorithms: The Hidden Arbiters of Political Messaging
Political campaigns are increasingly turning to targeted advertising platforms to inform and mobilize potential voters. The appeal of these platforms stems from their promise to empower advertisers to select (or "target") users who see their messages with great precision, including through inferences about those users' interests and political affiliations. However, prior work has shown that the targeting may not work as intended, as platforms' ad delivery algorithms play a crucial role in selecting which subgroups of the targeted users see the ads. In particular, the platforms can selectively deliver ads to subgroups within the target audiences selected by advertisers in ways that can lead to demographic skews along race and gender lines, and do so without the advertiser's knowledge. In this work we demonstrate that ad delivery algorithms used by Facebook, the most advanced targeted advertising platform, shape the political ad delivery in ways that may not be beneficial to the political campaigns and to societal discourse. In particular, the ad delivery algorithms lead to political messages on Facebook being shown predominantly to people who Facebook thinks already agree with the ad campaign's message even if the political advertiser targets an ideologically diverse audience. Furthermore, an advertiser determined to reach ideologically non-aligned users is non-transparently charged a high premium compared to their more aligned competitor, a difference from traditional broadcast media. Our results demonstrate that Facebook exercises control over who sees which political messages beyond the control of those who pay for them or those who are exposed to them. Taken together, our findings suggest that the political discourse's increased reliance on profit-optimized, non-transparent algorithmic systems comes at a cost of diversity of political views that voters are exposed to. Thus, the work raises important questions of fairness and accountability desiderata for ad delivery algorithms applied to political ads.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1943584 1916153 1956435 1916020
NSF-PAR ID:
10250386
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the 14th ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining
Page Range / eLocation ID:
13 to 21
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. This paper introduces Ibex, an advertising system that reduces the amount of data that is collected on users while still allowing advertisers to bid on real-time ad auctions and measure the effectiveness of their ad campaigns. Specifically, Ibex addresses an issue in recent proposals such as Google’s Privacy Sandbox Topics API in which browsers send information about topics that are of interest to a user to advertisers and demand-side platforms (DSPs). DSPs use this information to (1) determine how much to bid on the auction for a user who is interested in particular topics, and (2) measure how well their ad campaign does for a given audience (i.e., measure conversions). While Topics and related proposals reduce the amount of user information that is exposed, they still reveal user preferences. In Ibex, browsers send user information in an encrypted form that still allows DSPs and advertisers to measure conversions, compute aggregate statistics such as histograms about users and their interests, and obliviously bid on auctions without learning for whom they are bidding. Our implementation of Ibex shows that creating histograms is 1.7–2.5× more expensive for browsers than disclosing user information, and Ibex’s oblivious bidding protocol can finish auctions within 550 ms. We think this makes Ibex capable of preserving a good experience while improving user privacy. 
    more » « less
  2. Researchers and journalists have repeatedly shown that algorithms commonly used in domains such as credit, employment, healthcare, or criminal justice can have discriminatory effects. Some organizations have tried to mitigate these effects by simply removing sensitive features from an algorithm's inputs. In this paper, we explore the limits of this approach using a unique opportunity. In 2019, Facebook agreed to settle a lawsuit by removing certain sensitive features from inputs of an algorithm that identifies users similar to those provided by an advertiser for ad targeting, making both the modified and unmodified versions of the algorithm available to advertisers. We develop methodologies to measure biases along the lines of gender, age, and race in the audiences created by this modified algorithm, relative to the unmodified one. Our results provide experimental proof that merely removing demographic features from a real-world algorithmic system's inputs can fail to prevent biased outputs. As a result, organizations using algorithms to help mediate access to important life opportunities should consider other approaches to mitigating discriminatory effects. 
    more » « less
  3. null (Ed.)
    The rapid growth of online advertising has fueled the growth of ad-blocking software, such as new ad-blocking and privacy-oriented browsers or browser extensions. In response, both ad publishers and ad networks are constantly trying to pursue new strategies to keep up their revenues. To this end, ad networks have started to leverage the Web Push technology enabled by modern web browsers. As web push notifications (WPNs) are relatively new, their role in ad delivery has not yet been studied in depth. Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent WPN ads are being abused for malvertising (i.e., to deliver malicious ads). In this paper, we aim to fill this gap. Specifically, we propose a system called PushAdMiner that is dedicated to (1) automatically registering for and collecting a large number of web-based push notifications from publisher websites, (2) finding WPN-based ads among these notifications, and (3) discovering malicious WPN-based ad campaigns. Using PushAdMiner, we collected and analyzed 21,541 WPN messages by visiting thousands of different websites. Among these, our system identified 572 WPN ad campaigns, for a total of 5,143 WPN-based ads that were pushed by a variety of ad networks. Furthermore, we found that 51% of all WPN ads we collected are malicious, and that traditional ad-blockers and URL filters were mostly unable to block them, thus leaving a significant abuse vector unchecked. 
    more » « less
  4. Advertising is an input for many final goods, and broadcast television comprises a significant portion of ad spending in the United States. Yet, advertisers face different costs when purchasing national television ads. We seek to empirically confirm differences in firms’ costs to advertise nationally. Network-advertiser contracts are secret, so we combine data on ad placements and average prices of program airings to analyze price dispersion. We document that “legacy” advertisers with established broadcast relationships receive favorable prices for equivalent ad inventories. This may benefit incumbents and potentially soften price competition from newcomers in product markets. History: Avi Goldfarb served as the senior editor for this article. Funding: Financial support from the National Science Foundation [Grant SES-1919040] is gratefully acknowledged. Supplemental Material: The online appendix and data are available at https://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.2023.1442 . 
    more » « less
  5. null (Ed.)
    Monetizing websites and web apps through online advertising is widespread in the web ecosystem, creating a billion-dollar market. This has led to the emergence of a vast network of tertiary ad providers and ad syndication to facilitate this growing market. Nowadays, the online advertising ecosystem forces publishers to integrate ads from these third-party domains. On the one hand, this raises several privacy and security concerns that are actively being studied in recent years. On the other hand, the ability of today's browsers to load dynamic web pages with complex animations and Javascript has also transformed online advertising. This can have a significant impact on webpage performance. The latter is a critical metric for optimization since it ultimately impacts user satisfaction. Unfortunately, there are limited literature studies on understanding the performance impacts of online advertising which we argue is as important as privacy and security. In this paper, we apply an in-depth and first-of-a-kind performance evaluation of web ads. Unlike prior efforts that rely primarily on adblockers, we perform a fine-grained analysis on the web browser's page loading process to demystify the performance cost of web ads. We aim to characterize the cost by every component of an ad, so the publisher, ad syndicate, and advertiser can improve the ad's performance with detailed guidance. For this purpose, we develop a tool, adPerf, for the Chrome browser that classifies page loading workloads into ad-related and main-content at the granularity of browser activities. Our evaluations show that online advertising entails more than 15% of browser page loading workload and approximately 88% of that is spent on JavaScript. On smartphones, this additional cost of ads is 7% lower since mobile pages include fewer and well-optimized ads. We also track the sources and delivery chain of web ads and analyze performance considering the origin of the ad contents. We observe that 2 of the well-known third-party ad domains contribute to 35% of the ads performance cost and surprisingly, top news websites implicitly include unknown third-party ads which in some cases build up to more than 37% of the ads performance cost. 
    more » « less