Who Funds Misinformation? A Systematic Analysis of the Ad-related Profit Routines of Fake News sites

Fake news is an age-old phenomenon, widely assumed to be associated with political propaganda published to sway public opinion. Yet, with the growth of social media it has become a lucrative business for web publishers. Despite many studies performed and countermeasures deployed from researchers and stakeholders, unreliable news sites have increased their share of engagement among the top performing news sources in last years. Indeed, stifling fake news impact depends on the efforts from the society, and the market, in limiting the (economic) incentives of fake news producers. In this paper, we aim at enhancing the transparency around these exact incentives and explore the following main questions: Who supports the existence of fake news websites via paid ads, either as an advertiser or an ad seller? Who owns these websites and what other Web business are they into? What tracking activity do they perform in these websites? Aiming to answer these questions, we are the first to systematize the auditing process of fake news revenue flows. We develop a novel ad detection methodology to identify the companies that advertise in fake news websites and the intermediary companies responsible for facilitating those ad revenues. We study more than 2400 popular fake and real news websites and show that well-known legitimate ad networks, such as of Google, IndexExchange, and AppNexus, have a direct advertising relation with more than 40 news websites, and a re-seller advertising relation with more than 60 Using a graph clustering approach on an extended set of 114.5K sites connected with 443K edges, we show that entities who own fake news websites, also own (or operate) other types of websites for entertainment, business, and politics, pointing to the fact that owning a fake news website is part of a broader business operation.


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