Low-quality, AI-generated content farms designed to rake in cash via programmatic advertising revenue are cropping up at an alarming rate. And unfortunately, according to a new report by misinformation tracking company NewsGuard, their business model is working.
Per the report, over 141 "blue chip" — or internationally recognized — brands are unknowingly supporting hundreds of low-effort AI content farms.
Though NewsGuard didn't call out these blue chip ventures by name, it did note that the list includes "a half-dozen major banks and financial services firms," "two of the world's biggest consumer technology companies," and a "Silicon Valley digital platform," among others.
"It appears that programmatic advertising is the main revenue source for these AI-generated websites," NewsGuard analyst Lorenzo Arvanitis told MIT Technology Review. "We have identified hundreds of Fortune 500 companies and well-known, prominent brands that are advertising on these sites and that are unwittingly supporting it."
In other words: the destruction of the internet's usability rages on — and those behind this destruction have a growing financial incentive to keep going.
There are a few factors at play that make these findings so concerning, the first being that the proliferation of consumer-facing AI tools makes it incredibly easy to launch a site like this and fill it with boatloads of content.
AI programs like OpenAI's ChatGPT make it easy to generate text at an incredible scale, especially for folks who don't actually care about the quality.
And the scale of these operations is staggering. In the report, NewsGuard notes that these websites tend to generate hundreds of articles a day. One AI content farm that we stumbled upon recently — which was notably packed with phony citations and misinformation — similarly churned out articles at an alarming rate.
There's also the fact that ads for well-established companies may serve to legitimize and obscure the dark realities of these low-quality and potentially misinformation-peddling websites.
Perhaps most dangerous, however, is the central role that Google — and the broader digital advertising landscape — plays in the feasibility of the AI spam business model.
According to NewsGuard, more than 90 percent of the ads it encountered on these websites were served by Google Ads.
Google's advertising arm is a domineering force in the digital ad market and it doesn't bode well for the platform, or for its users that it's already serving ads on these AI content farms.
"We have strict policies that govern the type of content that can monetize on our platform," Michael Aciman, a policy communications manager for Google, told MIT Tech Review in a statement, noting that the production of AI-generated content isn't an outright violation. "For example, we don't allow ads to run alongside harmful content, spammy or low-value content, or content that's been solely copied from other sites. When enforcing these policies, we focus on the quality of the content rather than how it was created, and we block or remove ads from serving if we detect violations."
"We also recognize that bad actors are always shifting their approach and may leverage technology, such as generative AI, to circumvent our policies and enforcement systems," Acimen added.
Yet, considering NewsGuards reporting, it's clear that Google still has a lot of work to do when it comes to enforcing its ad policies — particularly when it comes to "spammy or low-value content."
"NewsGuard's findings shed light on the concerning relationship between Google, ad tech companies, and the emergence of a new generation of misinformation sites masquerading as news sites and content farms made possible by AI," Jack Brewster, enterprise editor for NewsGuard, told MIT Tech Review. "The opaque nature of programmatic advertising has inadvertently turned major brands into unwitting supporters, unaware that their ad dollars indirectly fund these unreliable AI-generated sites."
As far as the internet's usefulness is concerned, it's a pretty sobering new reality. Scammers have found effective new ways to leverage programmatic advertising and generative AI to effortlessly rake in some cash.
It's a paradoxical game of cat and mouse in which tech companies like Google continue to push generative AI tools, while those same tools are being used against their best financial interest.
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