October 15, 2020

How brands can disrupt disinformation in the U.S. elections

Voting has begun in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and disinformation actors are taking advantage of the divisive political climate. Well-known brands such as Bloomberg, Kohl’s, and New Balance are providing a funding life-line to nearly 200 sites carrying election disinformation. These sites are earning at least US$1 million a month from ads.

In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, brands must know the key disinformation narratives and high-risk sites circulating conspiracy theories so they can steer clear of funding them. Brands have a corporate responsibility to change their role in the disinformation ecosystem by directing their ad spend to credible sites. To help, GDI has launched a primer on U.S. electoral disinformation and the sites carrying this content.

GDI has identified four broad categories of disinformation narratives: dangerous and unfit candidates and voters (people), broken and rigged systems (processes), flawed oversight bodies (institutions), and interference (outside influence). (see Figure 1).

Disinformation concerning candidates includes attacks on the individuals being nominated, such as the conspiracy theory propagated by the Russian-backed RT.com that Kamala Harris is planned to replace Joe Biden shortly after the election.

Example 1: Bloomberg News ad served by Google on RT.com

Example 2: Bloomingdale’s Ad served by Google on Sputniknews.com

Sites carrying these electoral disinformation narratives are making ad money from this content. This funding lifeline is made possible from the ad networks that service these sites. Google accounts for the largest share of revenues paid out and services three out of every four of these 200 sites. Amazon contributes the next largest share (see Figure 2). The GDI has estimated that in total, tech companies enable the placement of more than US$1 million in advertising a month on these sites.

Figure 2: Share of ad revenues paid, by company.

Digging deeper, we see that just five sites are earning more than 70 percent of this ad revenue: the U.S. based Breitbart, The Western Journal and The Epoch Times, and the Kremlin-backed RT.com and SputnikNews.com. In total, these sites have an average of over 115 million U.S.-based monthly visitors and their social media reach gives electoral disinformation content even more attention and spread. Brand ads found by the GDI on these five sites include Amazon, PetCo, Tory Burch and UPS.

Brands have the right to direct their ad spend to content with which they align. Such decisions do not undermine freedom of speech. Knowing content risks can help advertisers ensure brand suitable content and that their brand ad spending align with their corporate responsibility agenda. Having the full scope of the disinformation ecosystem helps brands make informed decisions.

This includes knowing which sites have lower disinformation risks.

The GDI primer includes a window into some of the disinformation risks of over 75 top traffic U.S. news sites. We used an expert-vetted risk rating process and worked the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington to assess the sites. Of the assessed sample, six U.S. news sites were rated with the lowest disinformation risks: National Public Radio (NPR), The New York Times, Reuters, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. (the full findings will be published in the coming months).

Brands and advertisers can use such ratings to play a decisive and powerful role in supporting trusted content and avoiding funding high-risk sites spreading electoral disinformation.

“We know that advertisers don’t want to fund disinformation relating to the U.S. election,” said Clare Melford, GDI co-founder and executive director. “Brands must have more oversight and control over where their ads are placed—and what content profits from them.”

The GDI looks forward to working with companies, governments, and brands in securing the information landscape from the threat of disinformation impacting our elections.

Download the GDI primer here.

Download examples of brand ads here.