Forget junk mail. Junk content is the new nuisance, thanks to AI.

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Robotic arm holding a white envelope Illustrated / Getty Images

The internet is already full of spam messages and misinformation, but recently generative artificial intelligence models have made it much easier and cheaper to churn out lower-quality content. As a result, the web has seen an influx of fake news websites posting AI-generated content created to take advantage of advertising, the crux of the web's economy. Unfortunately, the scheme seems to be working. A recent analysis from news site rating company NewsGuard found many global brands were "feeding programmatic ad dollars to low-quality AI-generated news and information sites operating with little to no human oversight."

How is AI contributing to the rise of spam content?

While "spammy content isn't a new phenomenon" and the internet has adapted to waves before, the difference this time is that "the barrier to entry is dramatically low — both in terms of the cost and time that has to be invested," Kyle Riggers wrote for Tech Crunch. Generative AI programs, such as OpenAI's Chat-GPT, can quickly mass-create text, images and music at a fraction of the cost of using human creators.

The number of fake news sites NewsGuard identified between May and June grew from 49 to 277, according to the company's co-founder Gordon Crovitz. "This is growing exponentially," Crovitz told The Wall Street Journal. The sites seem to be created with the sole purpose of making money off of Google's programmatic advertising network, an automated system that puts ads on web pages. NewsGuard found that one such site posted up to 1,200 AI-generated articles daily. In total, 141 brands were funneling advertising money to these sites.

Editors at existing publications have also seen an uptick in AI-generated article pitches that are "so far beneath their standards that they consider it a new kind of spam," The Wall Street Journal reported. Some say the surge has been driven by YouTube videos that mention the outlets as a good place to pitch AI content. There are dozens of YouTube videos on ways to make money with OpenAI's tech, and many "suggest questionable schemes involving junk content." Some videos encourage writers to "write e-books or sell advertising on blogs filled with AI-generated content that could then generate ad revenue by popping up on Google searches." Some publications have temporarily suspended online submissions after being recommended in these types of videos.

The phenomenon has also touched Amazon's self-publishing platform. For two days at the end of June, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited young adult romance bestseller list was overrun with "dozens of AI-generated books of nonsense," Vice reported. While the website took almost immediate action against the books, "the episode shows that people are spamming AI-generated nonsense to the platform and are finding a way to monetize it."

How is the surge in spam content affecting the internet?

The proliferation of fake news sites and AI-generated content "has the potential to sap the very lifeblood of the internet's ad-dominated ecosystem," Kyle Barr warned in Gizmodo. The "growing spam-a-thon" is a huge problem for Google in particular, "as the vast majority of these ads — 90% — were being serviced through Google Ads." At the moment, it seems the tech giant's automated systems and policies "haven't been able to keep up with the wash of new sites popping up that are specifically built to suck in ad revenue with knockoff AI content," Barr added. The affected brands "likely have no idea that their ads are being showcased on spam sites" since they rely on Google's automatic curation system.

Google's search engine "underwrites the economy of the modern web" by "distributing attention and revenue to much of the internet," James Vincent pointed out in The Verge. The company has begun embracing and integrating AI into its search engine, spurred by the collaboration between Bing AI and ChatGPT. It has already started experimenting with replacing links with AI-generated summaries. "But if the company goes ahead with this plan, then the changes would be seismic," Vincent added.

Independent writers are also worried about the phenomenon. For Amazon, the proliferation of AI-generated e-books "will absolutely be the death knell for [Kindle Unlimited] if Amazon cannot kill this off," indie author Caitlyn Lynch said in a Twitter thread. The payout publishing authors get based on how many pages were read on Kindle "will halve and writers will pull their books in droves," Lynch added.

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