Advertisers should fear more than the chaos at Twitter

The opacity of the ad tech industry can be costly for brands. It’s time to embrace surveillance-free advertising.

Elon Musk photo and Twitter logo
Billionaire Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter concluded in October [Reuters/Dado Ruvic]

In the wake of Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter, several of the world’s largest ad agencies have advised clients to pause advertising their brands on the social media network due to concerns over “brand safety”. Thousands of Twitter employees either quit or were let go which reportedly affected moderation capacities, including those dedicated to ensuring adverts do not appear next to online content that could damage the image or reputation of a brand.

But advertising on Twitter was risky even before Musk took over. In general, advertising on social media is fraught with serious traps for brands. Rolling news feeds plus potential widespread hate speech and disinformation could result in reputational damage with every scroll if there is a misstep.

No airline wants their adverts placed next to breaking news of a plane crash. No brand would tolerate their product appearing beside posts soliciting child abuse material, praising terrorist acts or commending a famous footballer for drop-kicking his cat.

Musk has reportedly tried wooing back some advertisers with generous incentives, such as offering to match their ad spending, but it is not clear whether this has worked.

With no solid guarantee that brand-damaging incidents would be prevented, advertisers will likely return only when the new leadership of the company makes clear their plans for brand trust and safety, and rightly so.

But beyond the walled garden of social media platform advertising, there is a whole online advertising industry ecosystem out there increasingly presenting a new challenge to brand safety. In our investigations of the ad tech and data broker industry, we have been shocked to see how intrusive and harmful it has become.

These are companies you have never heard of, the mysterious “third parties” or “business partners” sometimes referenced in so many clicked-accept-but-didn’t-read privacy policies. Their business is to collect a huge amount of personal information from all over the internet and essentially sell it for marketing purposes.

We have evidence of personal information being collected from pregnant women through online parenting clubs, from mothers who have just given birth in hospitals in the United Kingdom by marketing companies allowed in the wards and from people who have visited mental health websites in Europe. This data is then shared with third-party marketers without these people’s knowledge.

Because of the nature of the data broker industry, sensitive information like this is likely being sold and resold and could end up in an advertiser’s data supply chain without them knowing.

Imagine the damage to a brand’s reputation if data illegally collected from women who suffered miscarriages is found to be used by a company selling baby products. This could result in women already going through the trauma of losing a pregnancy repeatedly seeing online adverts for diapers and formula, for example.

This is a horrific situation that a brand does not want to be anywhere near, but our question to advertisers is – can you be sure that no data in your supply chain has been collected in this way?

We understand that brands may not have full visibility of what is going on lower down in the data supply chain and we believe that if brands did know, they would want to make a change. It is an issue of increasing importance, as privacy-focused NGOs are increasing their scrutiny and regulators are starting to take notice. It is only a matter of time before attention turns to the role of advertisers in financing this industry.

We, at Privacy International, spent many months reaching out to advertisers, presenting our evidence, outlining our concerns and suggesting practical steps they can take to improve the online advertising landscape and reduce harm.

Advertisers can start by raising these concerns with their ad agencies and exploring alternatives to the current advertising status quo. There is space for a privacy-respecting system that relies on minimum data from consumers, but the current ecosystem promotes an intrusive all-or-nothing approach.

The truth is, surveillance-based advertising is not that effective and risking customers’ privacy is probably not a price worth paying for it. There is so little transparency in the industry that advertisers cannot know for sure how many consumers are actually exposed to their ads. There is also the issue of fraud, where clicks and views are inflated; one estimate puts losses for advertisers as a result of such practices at $23bn.

To minimise their risks and protect their customers, companies could conduct a data supply chain audit, looking in particular at third-party databases and auction systems used by ad tech companies and data brokers.

Companies already audit and monitor internal data practices, returns on ad spend, and protection for the brand image by controlling and verifying where ads are being served; they also do human rights due diligence in the whole supply chain. Utilising these existing audits to demand accountability and transparency on personal data usage can be a way to curb harmful practices and protect customers.

Advertisers are already showing they can flex some muscle in public when it comes to protecting their brand. They can also do so to protect their customers, too and show them they care for their privacy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.