March 24, 2020
New research by the GDI shows that ad tech players, including Google, are serving up ads and providing ad revenue streams to known disinformation sites peddling coronavirus conspiracies.
In a sample survey of nearly 50 sites carrying coronavirus conspiracies, we found Google provided ad services to 86% of these sites.
The next most frequently used ad services came from Amazon and Xandr (formerly AppNexus) that each served 20% and 18% of the sites in our sample, respectively (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Ad tech companies serving ads to coronavirus conspiracy sites - by share of sites (%)
While Google, Twitter and others are making great efforts to tackle coronavirus content on their platforms, they have more work to do in cutting the ad services they supply to the very content they are trying to remove.
By providing ad services to these sites that promote coronavirus conspiracy theories, ad tech companies are inadvertently funding and fueling the problem (ScreenShot 2).
For example, Taboola, which we found bidding on 10% of the domains in our sample, recently announced new policies meant to block coronavirus disinformation from appearing in their ads. Even if Taboola manages to perfectly enforce these policies, they unfortunately have overlooked the content they fund through providing ad placement services to sites carrying coronavirus disinformation.
Screenshot 2: Google ad for Amazon Prime displayed on coronavirus conspiracy article
Screenshot 3: Information showing the Google ad for Amazon Prime
Note: ZeroHedge.com is a known disinformation sites flagged by third parties
For ad tech companies to truly stem the tide of coronavirus disinformation, a more holistic approach is needed.
Take the case of Google. Our findings show that Google is still serving up ads on disinformation sites and articles touting coronavirus conspiracies despite public statements and their own ad policies. (see Screenshot 3).
For example, Google has a “sensitive events policy” for ads for which it has stated that the coronavirus “falls in scope with this policy and we are actively enforcing it across our platforms.”
However, the GDI has documented a visual trail of screenshots that shows how Google and other companies like Criteo and Revcontent are serving up ads on known disinformation sites carrying coronavirus conspiracies.
In addition, we found multiple instances of Google placing ads for face masks alongside coronavirus disinformation - despite their pledge to ban ads for medical masks (see screenshot 4).
Screenshot 4: Ad for face masks served by Google on coronavirus disinformation article
Screenshot 5: Coronavirus conspiracy theory by EUvsDisinfo on Southfront.org
Screenshot 6: Criteo ads displayed on same conspiracy article to SouthFront.org
Note: The code at bottom of page shows Criteo ad service providing the Made.com ad.
Screenshot 7: Revcontent ads provided to HumansAreFree.org on coronavirus conspiracy article
Note: This page has sponsored content that is provided by ad tech firm Revcontent.
Current coronavirus conspiracy theories include that the virus:
These findings are based on what we have tracked on these nearly 50 sites trafficking in coronavirus conspiracies.
All of these sites have been flagged for carrying disinformation by third parties, and also NewsGuard and the EU External Action Service (EEAS).
This spotlight on the problem is aimed at opening up a discussion with ad tech companies on how best to immediately defund these articles and sites.
Just in Europe alone, the GDI has estimated that each year known disinformation sites promoting coronavirus conspiracies, hate speech and other malicious content take in over US$76 million in ad revenues.
Ad services must be aligned with tech companies policies and actions to fight coronavirus conspiracies. The GDI believes that efforts to defund coronavirus disinformation sites is squarely aligned with the actions that Google, Taboola, Twitter and others are already taking to stop the spread of disinformation on the coronavirus.
We are at a critical moment to move promises by these tech companies to actions to defund known disinformation sites.
We call on the ad tech companies and brands to help us in this urgent fight.