Accuracy in Media

The polite way of putting this is that Gizmodo is burying the lede. The impolite way is that there is deliberate misleading going on here, in an article headlined, “These Companies Know When You’re Pregnant—And They’re Not Keeping It Secret.”

The article, with subhead “Gizmodo identified 32 brokers selling data on 2.9 billion profiles of U.S. residents pegged as ‘actively pregnant’ or ‘shopping for maternity products,’” is a discussion of how internet companies – the horrors! – sell our information. This will then be used to track those who have abortions and therefore – well, the rest of the picture rather draws itself, doesn’t it?

That is not, in fact, what is happening. Internet data just doesn’t work that way. No one actually says, “Jane Doe is pregnant, here’s all about her.” The entire worry is something made up, a function of people not understanding how it does work.

It’s only in paragraph 6 – and described in a slightly confusing manner as well – that what does happen is actually explained:

In all cases, these datasets were sold on what’s known as a “CPM” or “cost per mille” basis — which essentially means that whoever buys them only pays for the number of end-users that are reached with a given ad. Depending on who was offering up a dataset, the price per user ranged from 49 cents per user reached to a whopping $2.25.

No one does sell the information. They, instead, rent the opportunity to advertise to those people. The reason they never sell is that they want to be able to rent it more than once. Further, what is being sold is the ability to advertise. To advertise to those people who might be, or might become, or might be actively trying to become, pregnant.

No one does sell data. They rent the opportunity to advertise. The importance of this is that if the data is never sold – it isn’t – then that whole claim about selling data is proven to be incorrect, isn’t it? Even, mis- or dis-information.

Gizmodo itself runs exactly those programmatic ads which depend upon this sort of demographic information. But then that’s no surprise; the entire magazine industry has run on this basis for a century and more. “Baby and Mother” magazine will claim that its readership is largely mothers of babies and those who want to be, “Hot Rod Monthly” will point out that it has a rather more male readership. And their ad rates change accordingly. Advertisers then pick where they advertise based on such readerships. The only difference for online is that the fine divisions of who is interested in what are finer.

The internet industry doesn’t “sell your data.” It rents out the ability to advertise to you. Sure, annoying, but very much a different thing.

Gizmodo is in the top 50 for computer media sites in the U.S. They know this – as they show by paragraph 6 of theirs. They gain some 16 million visits a month from their position. They know that the data sales claim is wrong. And yet they mislead.

Now, whether it is burying the lede – that’s just a crime against journalism school by not explaining the important part upfront – or some desire to misinform it’s still not good enough. Gizmodo knows, because they say so, that data isn’t sold. So why does everything other than para 6 lead people to think that data is sold?




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