3 Big Questions from the ADM+S Dark Ads Hackathon

Author Lauren Hayden
Date 10 November 2022

Digital advertising is microtargeted, ephemeral, and unobservable. Ads such as those seen on social media are shown only to select users based on behavioural, demographic, and psychographic data the platform has been able to collect about them. These ads may be published for a limited time, often less than 24 hours, and they are invisible from view after they expire.

This is referred to as ‘dark advertising’. Researchers, advocates, and governments have little ability to monitor online advertising and are therefore unable to hold advertisers accountable for potentially harmful practices such as targeting underage users with ads for alcohol or gambling.

The ADM+S Centre’s Tech for Good: Dark Ads Hackathon challenged teams to create a ‘pretotype’ solution for monitoring, analysing and studying dark advertising. The three-day event, held at RMIT in Melbourne from 28 – 30 September 2022, hosted attendees from across Australia and an array of presenters representing consumer advocacy organisations, research groups and the tech industry.

Although teams were working towards solutions, the Hackathon generated big questions that are only the beginning of the conversation.

Big Question #1 – How does dark advertising affect users?

Existing research shows that digital advertising has been used to target at-risk groups with excessive messaging around harmful products such as alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods. The ‘dark’ nature of advertising hinders the ability to monitor and report these harmful targeting patterns.

As the first panel discussion highlighted, dark advertising is more than just predatory targeting. Advertisers have the power to artificially limit consumer choice, exploit dynamic pricing for optimal potential revenues, and employ dark patterns to nudge shopping behaviours. User data is sold to third parties which allows for further microtargeting and behavioural manipulation.

Dark advertising is shorthand for a broader, automated consumer culture which affects us all.

Big Question #2 – Who is responsible for making platforms safer and more fair?

Platforms, as the facilitators of dark advertising, receive the most criticism for enabling exploitive advertising practices in their digital spaces. Dr Laura Edelson, a postdoctoral researcher with the Cybersecurity for Democracy project at New York University, reminded participants that a collaborative effort among researchers, regulators and platforms is required to affect change. Users of digital platforms also have a critical role to play in identifying and reporting dark advertising, which was the focus of several Hackathon team designs. Dark advertising relies on a lack of visibility to operate. The mobilisation of users through data donation and reporting patterns of harmful advertising can highlight the extent of dark advertising and inform the development of regulatory frameworks around digital advertising.

Big Question #3 – What tools are needed to mobilise change around dark advertising?

Several tools have already been developed to examine dark advertising more closely. The Australian Ad Observatory is one project funded through the ADM+S Centre that allows users to “donate” the advertising they see on their Facebook feeds through a browser extension.

The web browser collects all sponsored content shown on the page and indexes the ads within a larger library used for research purposes. Users are also able to review the ads collected in a private archive. Further data collection tools and analytical frameworks are in development to assist researchers and regulators in evaluating potential harm in digital advertising.

These tools are a springboard for a larger, collaborative effort to regulate dark advertising which began to emerge at the Hackathon. Teams successfully generated a diverse array of conceptual tools that focus on empowering end users, analysing advertising data, and reporting harm to consumer advocacy organisations.

Most importantly, the Hackathon opened a conversation about dark advertising that will inform future development of responsible, ethical and inclusive automated decision-making systems.