May 15, 2020

When Conspiracies & Public Health Collide in Ad Tech

Since quarantine began, most governments have issued guidance along similar lines: wear masks, wash your hands, and stay six feet (1.5 meters) apart, don’t touch your face. But their use of social media and other channels to disseminate this guidance has been met with a small yet growing resistance. Conspiracists of all stripes are piling on, using the pandemic to justify every theory under the sun no matter how far fetched (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Map of COVID-19 Disinformation Narratives

In some cases, these narratives are even colliding via programmatic ads with the very messages they seek to undermine. Nothing illustrates this juxtaposition better than an ad for the US Government’s official coronavirus response site,, placed programmatically on the bottom of a story about an anti-government COVID conspiracy. Similar screenshots were found for the German government’s health ministry and the Red Cross on other COVID-19 conspiracy articles (see screenshots 1, 2 and 3).

Screenshot 1: Google-placed ad for the US Government’s official coronavirus response on disinformation site Activist Post.

Screenshot 2: Google-placed ad for the German Government’s Health Ministry on disinformation site Activist Post.

Screenshot 3: Amazon-placed ad for the British Red Cross on disinformation site Gateway Pundit.

These different adversarial narratives undermine public health and safety. In the US and other countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, such conspiracy theories have moved from online to the real world. Many US states - such as Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, and Pennsylvania - have all reported “liberation” protests of taking to the streets - and even targeting hospitals and healthcare workers. The Michigan state legislator even decided to cancel its session due to death threats to the Governor and legislators from armed protesters. Other narratives target public health guidance directly, undermining efforts to develop testing and tracing programs or vaccines.

All of this makes it even more jarring when programmatic ads for healthcare companies like Walgreens or Merck are placed next to such content, as shown in Screenshot 4 and 5. Since the infodemic of the pandemic has been declared, the GDI has been tracking such brand ads delivered by tech companies like Google, Amazon and others on these disinformation sites. This week's screenshots show the scope of the problem.

Screenshot 4: Outbrain/Teads-placed ad for Merck on disinformation site WND

These disinformation sites and the many tens of thousands like them have found a sizeable market and increased site traffic for stories that tap into COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Ad tech companies that provide ad services (like Google and Criteo) also profit from ads placed on these very websites. Ultimately, disinformation peddlers make money spreading their conspiracy claims, which undermine public health responses and put individuals at risk.

Screenshot 5: Google-placed ads for Walgreen’s and Wayfair on disinformation site Activist Post

The GDI calls upon the ad tech companies to stop servicing these sites immediately.

Brands, especially healthcare and government public service announcements (PSAs), need the assurance that their ads will not appear nor fund COVID-19 conspiracies and the sites behind them.

Ad tech companies need to take stronger action to protect their own businesses and their customers.

Trusted news publishers deserve a media ecosystem in which they need not compete with obvious junk sites for ad spend.

And the public needs to be able to trust the information they encounter on COVID-19, especially in such unprecedented times.

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