Podcasts

The Lawfare Podcast: The Broken Rube Goldberg Machine of Online Advertising

By Jen Patja Howell
Thursday, September 16, 2021, 8:29 AM

Today, we’re bringing you another episode of Arbiters of Truth, our series on the online information ecosystem.

In a 2018 Senate hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to a question about how his company makes money with a line that quickly became famous: “Senator, we sell ads.” And indeed, when you open up your Facebook page—or most other pages on the internet—you’ll find advertisements of all sorts following you around. Sometimes they’re things you might really be interested in buying, even if you’ve never heard of them before—tailored to your interests with spooky accuracy. Other times, they’re redundant or just … weird. Like the aid for a pair of strange plaid pajamas with a onesie-style flap on the bottom that briefly took over the internet in December 2020.

Shoshana Wodinsky, a staff reporter at Gizmodo, wrote a great piece explaining how exactly those onesie pajamas made their way to so many people’s screens. She’s one of very few reporters covering the business of online advertisements outside industry publications—so Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke to her this week about what it’s like reporting on ads. How exactly does ad technology work? Why is it that the ad ecosystem gets so little public attention, even as it undergirds the internet as we know it? And what’s the connection between online ads and content moderation?