April 20, 2020
White supremacy and coronavirus conspiracies disturbingly have become overlapping disinformation narratives in the current public health crisis. This poses a high and serious threat to public safety in the US as the country attempts to “bend the curve” of COVID-19. The narratives have moved from fringe sites to alternative news and even into mainstream media.
Stark examples of some of the harms caused by white supremacists’ use of broad racist and anti-Semitic tropes and memes include targeted attacks against Asian Americans as well other groups in the US.
The disinformation sites spreading these stories often rely on advertisements delivered by tech companies like Google, Xandr and Criteo (see screenshots 1, 2 and 3). Many well-known brands - including Amazon, Audible, Kaspersky, Made.com, SalesForce and Vimeo - unwittingly have found their online ads on these sites due to the lack of site block lists or proper brand safety measures by the tech companies.
Screenshot 1: Confluence ad served by Google on known disinformation site: www.worldnews.co.
Screenshot 2: Made.com served by Xandr on known disinformation site: www.russia-insider.com.
Screenshot 3: Made.com served by Criteo on known disinformation site: www.russia-insider.com.
Screenshot 4: Ads served by MGID on known disinformation site: sgtreport.com.
Key observers in this space - like the South Poverty Law Center (SPLC) - have noted that white supremacist sites are leveraging the health crisis and worries about the coronavirus to gain new adherents. It has argued that white supremacists are banking on the current uncertainty and US government’s missteps to drive more people to become frustrated with the status quo. This has already materialised as white supremacist and far-right groups have tried to leverage protests against state-level responses to the virus in the US (see Screenshot 4).
Screenshot 5: Made.com served by Criteo on known disinformation site: www.russia-insider.com.
In picking up the narrative of the coronavirus, white supremacist sites have even gone so far as to convince followers that have tested positive for COVID-19 that it is their “obligation” to spread the virus to the police, immigrants, and Jewish people.
White supremacist-linked sites rely on a network of “news” sites that sit closer to a more mainstream audience - and advertisers.
In the US, these sites are self-described “alternative news” websites which target opposition voices or criticism of President Trump as the source for the downfall of America’s democracy (see screenshots 5, 6 and 7). These sites often still receive ad services from ad tech companies and have not yet been blocked like more fringe white supremacy sites (although they are publishing their content).
Screenshot 6: Audible and AdCouncil ads served by Google on known disinformation site: www.activistpost.com.
Screenshot 7: Amazon.com ad served by Google on known disinformation site: www.thepoliticalinsider.com.
The more ad tech companies that give a funding lifeline via ads to this network of sites, the more content and reach that these sites have.
The more content and reach they have, the greater access and leverage they have to push white supremacy theories. As the GDI has argued, there is a clear set of online and offline harms created by the disinformation that we see being generated around the coronavirus that has linked up with white supremacist narratives.
The GDI calls on Google and other ad tech companies immediately to stop providing ad services to these sites that disseminate disinformation on the coronavirus, including white supremacist conspiracies.
The GDI believes no company should be providing advertising services to white supremacy and hate sites. While free speech is protected by law in many countries, profiting from that speech is not a right.
Ad tech companies have the opportunity to be on the right side of history by bringing their considerable might to defund not only disinformation about the pandemic but also hate speech.
At the moment, however, ad tech firms continue to fuel an infodemic as potentially deadly as the pandemic itself.
For a presentation deck of advertisements provided by ad tech companies, click here.