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Haven’t Seen as Much BLM Content Lately? Blame Biased Algorithms

BLM articles only generate around 57% of the ad revenue that non-BLM articles do.

Like many others, you might have seen a decline in social media posts regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Some cite fatigue, while others might have finished their virtue signaling sprint and have already moved on to weekend brunching (don’t worry, it’s outdoors!)

Hit-it-and-quit-it activism is not a new phenomenon, and compounded with an insidious pandemic and skyrocketing unemployment rates, it can be easy to rationalize why people are taking a “breather.”

But according to Paul Wallace, VP of global revenue products and services at Vice Media, the reason you might not be seeing as many posts about BLM on your feed has to do with sweet, sweet digital ad revenue.

Wallace told AdAge that after analyzing Vice’s new stories from June 2 — June 8, 2020, he discovered that content related to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and protests racked up the most clicks. According to PEW Social Trends, 65% of all adult Americans — agree with the movement, with white (60%), Hispanic (77%), and Asian (75%) Americans expressing support in some fashion. So it makes sense that articles containing information about the Black Lives Matter movement are getting a lot of traffic.

Pew Research Center

Generally, when an article has a high click through rate (CTR), advertisers are willing to pay more money to be featured. Logic dictates that journalistic pieces the Black Lives Matter would be money-making machines for publishers. So why are keywords and phrases like “George Floyd,” “protests,” and “Black Lives Matter” only making 57% CPM (Cost Per Mille, or how much money publishers make on an article per thousand clicks) of other news stories?

Marketers often buy ad space in bulk, but they don’t comb through individual sites to check whether or not a publishers’ ethos and content meshes well with their clients’ needs. Instead, they rely on third party keyword-blocking tech, which scan articles for blocked words and automatically eliminate any articles containing blocked keywords as an ad space option.

This became a massive component of the digital publishing space in early 2017 after some brands discovered they were inadvertently funding terrorist organizations by blindly purchasing ad space on their sites.

While keyword blocking programs and tech have successfully prevented, say, presidential ads from popping up on YouTube ISIS training videos, they can be dangerous when it comes to spreading information about the Black Lives Matter movement. Commonly blocked words are usually violent, like “murder,” “shoot,” and “rape.” But others, like “sex,” “lesbian,” and, according to Wallace, keywords relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, are also being block-listed by keyword-blocking tech as a blanket approach to avoiding controversy.

The worst part? Many publishers aren’t even aware that the third-party tech they use to make their pages advertiser-friendly have included these words on their block-lists. Algorithms can be (and often are) inherently biased.

This isn’t to say any publisher blocking Black Lives Matter keywords gets off scot-free. Some companies have no qualms putting up social media posts supporting the movement while simultaneously blocking keywords like “Black people” and “Black Lives Matter.”

“There are a dozen algorithms out there working on behalf of these third party technology tools that are identifying these words and adding them to lists without anyone having lifted a finger,” Wallace told AdAge, noting that “Black people” was on the site’s keyword-block list. “That is a descriptor of a person and there is nothing negative about that. But by putting it on a block list it is effectively saying that it is.”

Unfortunately altruism doesn’t pay the bills, and the hellscape that is digital publishing has repeatedly been affected by drastic budget cuts. Keeping keywords about Black Lives Matter and Black people at a lower CPM disincentivizes ad-driven publications from reporting on crucial information regarding the Movement for Black Lives. It is yet another way of “othering” BIPOC.

This keyword blocking says that other articles, like fall fashion roundups and celebrity fails, are quite literally worth more than an international movement to save Black lives.

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