May 4, 2020

Why is tech not defunding COVID-19 disinfo sites?

Ad tech companies have a responsibility to cut off ad-driven funding to disinformation actors. In the fight against the infodemic of COVID-19, this has become a matter of life or death. Ad tech must protect the public from harmful product scams, dangerous health advice, and claims that incite division and conflict. What has the companies’ response been?

To get a snapshot of the industry’s response, the GDI analysed five coronavirus-related policies from seven tech companies that play a sizeable role in serving up the ads we see online. They include: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Xandr, Taboola, Revcontent, & Criteo.

We include Facebook because as a company they control what ads we see within their “walled gardens.”

The others have been selected as the GDI estimates that they are among the main players serving up ads on high-traffic corona conspiracy sites. GDI has found that Google alone provides ad services to 86% of the coronavirus conspiracy sites that we assessed.

We analysed the set of companies to understand how they were ramping up protections to stop disinformation-related ads. We asked:

  • Does the company's policy call for a complete ban on all ads that mention coronavirus?;
  • Does the company restrict ads for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and related products (i.e. hand sanitizer)?;
  • Does the company restrict ads that make false claims about COVID-19?;
  • Does the company run PSAs from public health authorities?; and
  • Has the company committed to not run ads on coronavirus disinformation websites?

All questions were answered by looking at the publicly available information for these companies. These published policies and statements are critical to help inform the public of how companies are responding to the infodemic of the pandemic. The findings are in Table 1.

Table 1: Assessment of COVID-19 Related Ad Policies

Note: table compiled by GDI based on companies' public statements and policies.

Of the companies evaluated:

  • Facebook and Google are the ones that tick the most boxes for pursuing such policies. For example, they have placed temporary bans on all sales related to coronavirus.
  • Taboola and Twitter follow them in terms of their public statements and response. Still both are allowing for some PPE product ads (trusted brands only) to get through.
  • Xandr and Revcontent have heightened their ad approval procedures through fact checkers, but are heavily relying on users reporting false ad content.
  • Criteo came in last, making no public statements to restrict any ads.

Still, based on screenshots, we have found that COVID19 ads and profiteering are happening in ads delivered by many of these companies - including to known disinformation sites (see screenshots 1 and 2).

Screenshot 1: PPE product ad delivered by Google to disinformation site:

Screenshot 2: PPE product ad delivered by Google to disinformation site:

Screenshot 3: PPE product ad delivered by Google to disinformation site:

This point speaks to an even greater problem that the companies are not tackling: none of them have committed to stop advertising services to coronavirus disinformation sites.

By failing to commit to defunding disinformation sites publishing coronavirus conspiracies, these companies are ignoring the other critical half of the disinformation equation.

The GDI has found that all the tech companies which provide ad services to COVID-19 disinformation sites are extending a financial lifeline to them. The ad revenue generated by these sites creates a perverse financial incentive for them to keep pushing out the same content. There is no place for providing ad services to such disinformation sites during this infodemic. Beginning in April, GDI had been tracking such advertising that is appearing unabated on these disinformation sites.

These adverts and related services must be stopped if we are to effectively combat the public health and safety crisis these sites are exacerbating.

To stop funding these sites, we need tech companies like Google and Criteo to block their ad services to known disinformation sites. But this is not happening.

As a result, it has fallen on brands to act. Unfortunately, many brands have adopted overly broad keyword-matching blocklists that prevent their ads from appearing on any articles that contain words like “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”. But these blocklists cannot effectively tell the difference between an article debunking conspiracies and an article promoting drinking bleach as a cure for the virus.

This approach is only adding to the infodemic and causing the defunding of ads to trusted and needed news sites that are trying to inform the public about the coronavirus.

The GDI calls on tech companies to commit to blocking ad services to all domains that are continuously publishing harmful coronavirus disinformation.

Numerous fact checking organisations and disinformation monitoring projects have published updated lists of the worst offenders. These lists are public.

We know which sites are at the centre of the problem. It is time to act.

For more examples of tech companies providing advertising to disinformation sites, see here.