As the Saudi visit shows, state propaganda and digital ads are a match made in heaven

The PR campaign launched during the visit of Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman shows why online ads are ideal for moulding narratives.

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This week Saudi ruler Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited the UK. He was accompanied by a wide-ranging marketing campaign incorporating London billboards, half-page ads in newspapers and, of course, targeted digital advertising on news websites. The ads seek to portray Salman – who has made a number of moves to open up the country – as a great reformer, but understandably make no mention of Saudi's ongoing human rights abuses.

On Wednesday morning, the digital part of this campaign led some Guardian readers to see the incongruous juxtaposition of an article by Labour shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, headlined “Britain’s red carpet for the Saudi ruler is shameless” and an ad from an organisation called Saudi AEI that promotes the country. This included a picture of Salman, a woman driving, and the line “he is empowering Saudi Arabian women”. Other newspapers such as the Financial Times also ran ads from AEI Saudi.

A lot of the criticism aimed at the Guardian, and other titles, has focused on both the country’s human rights record at home, and its interventions abroad in places like Yemen, where it is backing one side in a vicious and bloody civil war.

There is a debate to be had about which countries or organisations media companies allow to advertise to their readers. Some believe that a publication should only accept advertising from those whose values are in tune with its editorial line. Others say that allowing advertisers to get their message across is an important component of free speech.

The line taken by most news outlets is that, as long as an ad doesn’t break guidelines over offence, inaccuracy or the promotion of crime or hate, the paper’s editorial line should not influence who is allowed to advertise. The one caveat is that journalists and editors are free to make decisions about what to cover without any interference from, or heed to, what advertisers want.

This was a point emphasised by a Guardian spokesperson in a statement on the Saudi AEI ads: “The acceptance of advertising and sponsorship in no way affects our editorial position. We are free to, and often do, challenge the activities of companies and organisations that are also our advertisers and sponsors.”

Having worked at the Guardian for two years, I can say that what an advertiser might think was of no consideration when we were deciding what to write, or how to write it.

So everything’s fine then? Well, as with so much about the modern world, and especially the media, the internet has complicated things.

The online Saudi AEI ads no longer seem to be appearing alongside Thornberry’s article, or indeed any pieces about Saudi Arabia, on the Guardian. You can read through a dozen pieces detailing everything from criticism of Salman’s visit, to UK arms export to the country without seeing any ads extolling its new leader's virtues. It appears that after concerns about the ad placement were raised, the Guardian made the necessary changes behind the scenes to ensure Saudi propaganda isn’t appearing alongside its online coverage of the country.

But as soon as you click on an unrelated Guardian article  say a football match report, a book review – there pops up that woman in the car, praising Salman.

Indeed, the more articles about Saudi Arabia you read, no matter how critical, the more ads you receive portraying the country in a positive light. It's just they don't turn up until after you’ve moved on to unrelated fair. Trying this on Wednesday afternoon, I got three Saudi SEI ads in a row – each with the tagline: “United Kingdoms” over Saudi and UK flags – on articles completely unrelated to the country. 

It’s difficult to know whether I was seeing these targeted ads because of what I’d just read on the Guardian, or based on other data – such as a Google search suggesting I held a particular interest in Saudi Arabia. Whatever its cause, it is clear that the message was successfully aimed at somebody whose online profile indicated an interest in the country and what it was up to.

This is, of course, a feature of digital advertising, not a bug. If you read a lot of news stories about Saudi human rights abuses, you are exactly the sort of person the Saudi government wants to target with positive messages about how everything is changing under its new leader. Digital advertising, and the data collection it is built on, makes it possible to do just that.

And it’s not a problem restricted to Saudi princes or the Guardian. Last month, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to accuse Poland of any complicity in the Holocaust, a move which has been labelled an attempt to re-write history. To support that law, the government released a video which purported to tell the “truth” about the crimes committed against Jews and others in death camps built in Poland. That video was then promoted via digital advertising networks across the web on social media and other sites. That meant those ads were seen by some New Statesman readers next to an article about the anti-Semitic French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, until we moved rapidly to block them.

The problem here is that the bulk of modern digital advertising cedes control over what appears where on a publisher website. Even organisations like the Guardian, which have firm safeguards in place to avoid problematic ads slipping through, can get manipulated. For all of us in the media, it regularly becomes a game of whack-a-mole, removing inappropriate ads once they’ve been spotted in the wild.

Why is this any different from buying up column inches in a newspaper or magazine? Because the tools of digital advertising allow targeted attempts to find those you most want to influence. For Nike, it will often be people who read about running. For Saudi Arabia or Poland, it will just as often be people reading negative news reports about their activities. The key difference is that while shoe makers are trying to convince people to buy something, state propagandists are trying to make them think something, and quite often – as is the case for Saudi Arabia, or Poland – to think something contrary to what's in the news. It, in effect, hands states a far more sophisticated way of using propaganda to combat reporting.

Advertising doesn’t have to undermine good journalism – but with so little control over the way ads work online, it’s very difficult for media organisations to ensure it doesn’t.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.