The word “bot” is a double-entendre. It refers both to the larval stage of the bot-fly, a rather gruesome internal parasite (warning, link not for the squeamish) and to a software application that runs automated scripts on the internet in highly repetitive fashion—also with parasitic effects. Internet bots can be programmed for good or evil. This post refers to the latter kind.

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Use of Bots for Ad Fraud

The dominant model of compensation for digital advertising remains the CPM, or cost per thousand impressions. Impressions are simply ad views, that is, the successful delivery of a specific advertisement to a consumer’s web browser. (We adopt the fiction that it has been “viewed” so long as it appears for some period of time on the consumer’s screen.) There is robust debate on what an impression actually means with respect to non-static ads, such as videos, for which compensation may flow even if the consumer sees only a few seconds of the entire video. A publisher, such as a website, will offer advertisers a sliver of their online real-estate at a given CPM rate, and will thereafter be compensated by advertisers at that rate for how many impressions have been generated.


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Last December, authorities arrested Edgar Welch, a 28-year old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, who had entered Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, armed with a shot gun. Mr. Welch reportedly came to Comet Ping Pong on a self-described mission to free child sex slaves that he believed might be imprisoned there at the bidding of Hillary Clinton and her campaign Chief of Staff, John Podesta. After Welch shot his gun into the ceiling, terrified employees fled the building. Then, after encountering swarms of local police, and having found no evidence of the vast conspiracy he had been led by social media to believe existed, he gave himself up peacefully to authorities.

As outlandish as the story may seem, Mr. Welch was not the only one duped by the story. For weeks, dozens of anonymous posters had fanned the flames and pursued the imaginary conspiracy theory on Reddit.com, a hugely popular social news aggregation site.

This fake conspiracy was likely fueled in part by armies of “bots,” which are fake social media accounts often purchased and organized centrally, and mobilized to push a particular opinion or agenda and sway public opinion. It is surprisingly easily to purchase bots online. For example, Russian websites, such as BuyAces, sell empty social media accounts to anyone willing to pay with digital currency. Once purchased, programmers can enable these accounts to disseminate information or respond to news stories en masse. It is widely reported that Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is investigating whether the Russian government used such tactics to influence the last election.

What does this have to do with advertising, you might ask? Everything.


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This year, digital media spending is expected to outstrip spending on traditional media, such as television and print. Advertisers, lured by the promise of precise targeting, better ability to measure return on investment, and changing consumer media consumption patterns, have poured money into digital at an almost exponential rate. And, while there are studies (largely by digital media agencies) documenting the effectiveness of such advertising, there remain major questions regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of such spending.


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