April 2, 2020

A Word from Our Executive Director: GDI in the Age of the Coronavirus

GDI is almost 18 months old now. From the beginning, our focus has been on disrupting the advertising that is inadvertently funding disinforming websites. But this work has taken on an added urgency as the “infodemic” of disinformation about the coronavirus flourishes across the web.

Our research has uncovered significant advertising by well-known brands - from Amazon to Volvo - that is providing a funding stream to sites carrying coronavirus disinformation. This must stop now and requires a “whole of industry” response from advertisers and the ad tech companies that are providing ads and ad services to these disinformation sites.

The placement of adverts on these coronavirus conspiracy sites is funding an extremely pernicious form of disinformation that is even bleeding into mainstream news sites. We see the real world harm caused by disinformation about such a contagious and too often deadly disease that is affecting countries around the world.

The pandemic has created a financial incentive for disinformation merchants, and unfortunately has led to a blunt response by brands worried about being associated with the pandemic. Without nuanced flags or real-time risk ratings of sites, many brands have blocked their ads from appearing next to any content containing the words coronavirus or Covid19 - even on trusted and reputable news sites. As virtually all news globally is about little else right now, the already embattled news sector has seen its advertising revenue plummet in recent days. It is estimated that UK papers alone could lose over 50 million pounds in ad revenues due to these types of block lists.

Never before has a topic of disinformation been so widely shared and hence so potentially deadly on a global scale. We are already seeing the widespread monetisation of bogus coronavirus cures - which we recently highlighted in our tracking of disinformation around the pandemic. How long before we see deaths and injuries from these and other forms of coronavirus disinformation, like the conspiracy theories that it was started by the Chinese government, is a result of gay marriage, or a plot by some of the world’s powerful elite and wealthy?

With some world leaders once calling it the “Chinese virus”, we already have seen people of Asian decent targeted with violent attacks. In the US alone, some estimates put this at 100 attacks per day. Similar attacks and a rise in racism have been seen in the UK and elsewhere.

GDI is turning all of it’s technical skill towards thwarting online disinformation around the coronavirus. Our AI powered approach to finding disinforming narratives online allows us to flag all types of coronavirus disinformation in the English language on whatever website it appears and in real time. We are ramping up a production-grade version of our prototypes and making them available to governments tackling disinformation in their countries. Such GDI tools can help governments see which sorts of narratives are gaining the most attention and hence what counter measures should be launched.

When these tools are deployed across the advertising system, this product should give advertisers what they need to stop using blunt key word blocking tools and return to placing ads on quality news coverage of the coronavirus. Such a shift will support our vital journalists at a critical moment for trusted news while defunding junk sites that traffic in disinformation on the coronavirus.

We see all of this work reflecting our DNA as a not-for-profit working to see a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-industry response to disinformation.

In addition, we are working to rate the disinformation risks of a range of news sites in different countries around the globe. These sites are some of the most read and shared news sites in each country, and the GDI ratings will provide critical insights into how to ensure that coronavirus conspiracies and other disinforming narratives stay off of them.

The GDI risk ratings are based on the methodology that we have already rolled out in South Africa and the UK. This year we plan to add Argentina, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, India, Latvia and the US. Such research will be critical as we work as a community to stop the spread of coronavirus-related disinformation and other adversarial narratives.

We see the coming months for GDI as a “challenge accepted” to fight the disinformation being spread and monetised about the coronavirus.

But we need brands, ad tech companies and platforms to join us in this urgent battle if we are going to successfully disrupt and defund these deadly disinformation sites.

Our lives depend on it.

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