Big Tech podcast: David Carroll on the dark side of digital advertising


Online platforms like Facebook and Google Ads are positioned as superior tools for micro-targeting advertisements. The promise of greater returns on investment and granular control over who will engage with an ad has attracted advertisers.

In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Art and Design at The New School. Carroll’s own understanding of the ways in which platforms were monetizing his online activity was featured in The Great Hack documentary. His research into how online advertising systems work reveals just how little thought was put into oversight and monitoring of the systems that advertisers built.

Carroll argues that financial incentives created the current data-hungry advertising environment. “The advertising complex was built to sort us into categories without knowing what our categories are. And then from there the recommendation engines were built to surface vast databases into a user interface. And those were biased towards engagement to move the chart up and then the user interface to reward people right on the surface for engagement, to move the chart up. And it was never about intelligence or goodness, it was just about greed and metrics.” For Carroll, digital advertising platforms are reminiscent of 1830s snake oil salesmen who used penny press newspapers to share misleading information. Eventually, people were protected from such ads when U.S. Congress created the Food and Drug Administration. Now, governments must step in to build the same kind of oversight bodies to regulate digital advertising.

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