Investigators: Adam Sell, Will Herbig, Ian McArtney, Francis Kitrick, Christopher Soo, Mikhail Venkov

“Social distancing.” It’s been the watchword of the last several weeks as everyone’s routines have dramatically changed following the outbreak of COVID-19. And as we’ve adapted to the new, semi-permanent reality of quarantine, we’ve been forced to find ways to work remotely, entertain ourselves, and educate our children.

Numerous news articles have emerged exploring the impacts of COVID-19 and social distancing on internet traffic. Countries have experienced nationwide web traffic speed slowdowns due to the uptick in users. Ad rates are down 20 points over this same time last year (perhaps reflective of the increase in inventory, which is in turn reflective of the number of people at home and on their devices). An influx of young people staying home and playing video games may have been responsible for a 70% increase in internet traffic in Italy.

The visibility White Ops’ bot mitigation platform has as part of our more than one trillion weekly bot-or-not decisions reveals how social distancing is impacting our internet consumption habits, and in turn, digital advertising. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in traffic we protect on mobile devices in the time since social distancing became a part of the public zeitgeist, and traffic on Connected TV (CTV) devices has climbed as well. In comparison, desktop traffic we protect has been largely flat as mobile and CTV device traffic has risen.

Our view into ad requests also provides us a glimpse into what categories of websites are seeing increased (and decreased) traffic in this time. Several categories, like news websites, have climbed significantly, while others, including travel websites, have fallen precipitously.

Increased traffic may be just the tip of the iceberg, though. Other  White Ops Satori Threat Intelligence and Research investigations suggest bad actors are also paying close attention to the opportunity that social distancing has created. Stay tuned for the results of those investigations.

 

Traffic in the time of COVID-19 

Kids are home from school, college students have had the remaining weeks or months of their semesters canceled, and everybody capable of working from home is doing so.

In short, there are a lot more people using the internet at any given time than there typically were. And more eyeballs and more visits to publisher sites translates into more inventory for publishers to sell. Individual publishers have reported experiencing significant upticks (soft paywalled article) in their traffic figures.

White Ops has seen significant traffic growth over the last few weeks. This chart reflects the number of ad requests protected by our platform (click on any chart in this investigation to expand it):

white ops bot mitigation

Please note: this chart has been normalized to reflect only White Ops partners who have been fully integrated since before the onset of COVID-19. Some current partners have onboarded in this time; their data has been removed from this and all views in this investigation for consistency and accuracy.

Beginning February 22nd, the universe of White Ops interactions (bot-or-not assessments) has risen 10%. That swing is most evident beginning the week of March 16th, by which point the public discourse surrounding social distancing was in full effect, and many businesses, schools, and colleges had announced decisions to close their doors.

We can also see, in another view of the data, just how many unique devices were examined for bot activity as a part of White Ops' protection:

white ops bot mitigation

From a low on February 1st to a high on March 26th, White Ops observed a more than 50% jump in the number of unique devices requesting ads protected by Advertising Integrity. The last two weeks in particular witnessed dramatic rises in the number of devices visible to White Ops.

It’s worth noting that no states had enacted full shelter-in-place orders as of March 16th. As of April 1st, thirty-two states and portions of ten more (soft paywalled graphic) had stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders in effect. As a result, we expect that the traffic will rise further, as nonessential businesses that had not already closed their doors are forced to by state or local ordinance.

 

Channel-surfing

Perhaps the most compelling breakdown of the data pertains to which platforms have seen traffic changes, and by what degrees traffic has changed. We can visualize the vast majority of the traffic we see in three major buckets: desktop traffic, mobile traffic, and CTV traffic. And the patterns for each bucket have been fascinating to observe as social distancing measures first began and then became commonplace.

This first chart records desktop traffic patterns. It’s filtered to reflect weekdays only: in normal times, there’s a weekend dip in desktop traffic patterns as people step away from the devices they use for work, so we’re isolating this chart to when these devices are in greatest use:

white ops bot mitigation

Of the three major buckets that we’re sorting traffic into, desktop traffic is the only one that’s been largely flat over the time that COVID-19 has been a part of the international narrative, though it has fallen slightly in that time. Those dips on the chart correspond with Fridays. Although we don’t have a firm explanation as to why desktop traffic in particular falls on Fridays, it may be because employees are shifting to four-day weeks to have long weekends.

In contrast, mobile traffic has undergone a dramatic rise in the time of social distancing:

white ops bot mitigation

From a low on March 9th, mobile traffic is up more than 15% by March 23rd. Students are home from college, kids are expected to entertain themselves without the benefit of extracurricular activities, and many nonessential businesses are closed without work-from-home solutions. That spike in mobile traffic may be just the beginning.

Weekends tell a different story. With every major sports league on hiatus, cultural institutions and movie theaters closed, and even some public parks shut down, many people have turned to CTV for entertainment. If you isolate the weekends for CTV volumes, you’ll see that they’re ticking steadily upward as alternative forms of entertainment have shut their doors:

white ops bot mitigation


This trend is borne out further looking at streaming platforms that show advertising on them. The chart below reflects three high-profile ad-supported streaming content services and their traffic figures since March 1st:

white ops bot mitigation

These three streaming services have experienced a dramatic increase in traffic in just the last thirty days, with the possibility of more to come as self-quarantines continue and more states and countries go into lockdown or shelter-in-place situations. It will be especially interesting, going forward, to map a possible decline in desktop traffic with a possible continued rise in mobile and CTV traffic. White Ops will continue to monitor these trends for impacts on partners specializing in those environments.

 

Whither goest thou?

Part of the visibility that White Ops has into ad requests is the category that a given website falls into. The patterns that social distancing and COVID-19 have created in traffic across categories are largely pretty intuitive. If you can’t leave your home, it stands to reason that you’re less likely to visit a Travel category website than you would be if you could pack up and fly to Jamaica. But the intensity of the traffic changes White Ops has witnessed is pretty stark.

One of the big “winners” (as ad requests go) during this time are News websites:

white ops bot mitigation

As noted above, those dips correspond with weekends. But traffic to news-themed websites, as observed by White Ops, is up more than 10% from February 24th through the end of March. That makes sense, of course, as people who are concerned about the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak will turn to news sources for information.

Similarly, people who are trapped in their homes for the time being will seek out whatever amusements they can find, as reflected in this chart of traffic to Arts and Entertainment-themed websites:

white ops bot mitigation

Over that same period, ad requests on these sites rose more than 16%, as the trendline above indicates.

The jackpot, such as it is, belongs to the Food and Drink category:

white ops bot mitigation

Those spikes correspond with weekends—with more time available on weekends (due to the absence of sports leagues, cultural institutions, and many other typical distractions), it appears more people are preparing and working on home-cooked meals. The trendline here is a whopping 42% gain from February 24th through March 30th.

One traditional weekend distraction has thus far seen only a minimal increase in ad requests as measured by White Ops. The Home and Garden category has seen only a 4% rise from February 24th through March 30th:

white ops bot mitigation

That 4% is, like with other categories mentioned, based on the trendline, not the absolute peaks and valleys in the chart.

We would expect that as spring warms up the colder climates, ad requests on these sites will rise—the weekend of March 28th-29th were especially high, and small home improvement projects may begin to fill weekend plans as the weather changes.

On the flip side, however, there are several categories of website that have fallen precipitously as social distancing keeps us all indoors and away from friends and family. One such category is Vehicles:

white ops bot mitigation

When there are few places open to travel to, it makes sense that traffic to vehicle-themed websites would be down. This drop, though, is notable in its size—that trendline reflects a 41% fall in ad requests as protected and observed by White Ops.

Vehicle-themed websites don’t, however, have it worst off. Both Sports- and Travel-themed websites saw even steeper declines in ad requests.

white ops bot mitigation

Sports-themed websites are down 44% over the last six weeks. With no major leagues in the United States (and very few worldwide) still playing, this drop-off is predictable, and will likely reverse as leagues announce return dates and revised schedules.

But the most hard-hit category by far is Travel:

white ops bot mitigation

That’s a more than 64% decline in ad requests in only six weeks. With nowhere open to travel to—and few socially distant ways to travel in the first place—this drop is perhaps the one most reflective of social distancing’s impact.

 

Count de Monet

At White Ops, we have an expression that we use when we explore new advertising avenues: fraud follows money. It’s been true of the CTV market as a whole, where SSAI spoofing and CTV device spoofing have followed high CPMs on a premium medium for advertisers. And it’s been true of mobile advertising, where fraudsters take advantage of app spoofing and mobile malware to maximize their return on a minimal investment in crime.

This influx of eyeballs may present an opportunity to cybercriminals: it’s not difficult to imagine a cybercriminal seeing a rise in mobile traffic as an opportunity to launch a fraud operation.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) conducted a survey during March, asking advertisers what their plans were surrounding advertising and COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed responded that they had paused all advertising for the first and second quarter of 2020, with digital ad spend down a third and traditional ad spend down nearly 40%.

The majority of the brands that are still advertising, according to the study, are adjusting their messaging to reflect COVID-19 anxiety.  For example, Ford Motor Company changed the content in an ongoing ad campaign to speak to those concerns, rather than continue to advertise to a population that is unlikely to consider purchasing a new vehicle at this time.

Our advice to advertisers and technology partners is simply: be vigilant and make the most of Mobile and CTV advertising in the right channels as volumes grow. We know that bad actors follow the money, so in the coming weeks, we will publish key findings of where we see ad fraud and sophisticated bot attacks associated with  COVID-19-related social distancing. White Ops will continue to monitor and report on sophisticated bot activity on channels that cybercriminals may target during this period.

TAGGED: Security