July 8, 2020

Why is ad tech paying US$25 million to COVID-19 disinfo sites?

Household brands are inadvertently funding disinformation sites to spread COVID-19 conspiracies, thanks to ad tech companies that do not effectively screen the sites to which they provide ads services.

New research from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) shows that Google, Amazon and other tech companies are paying COVID-19 disinformation sites at least US$25 million in ad revenues to carry ads for well-known brands such as Bloomberg News, Crest Toothpaste, L'Oreal, Made.com, Merck and many others.

Figure 1: Ad revenues paid by tech companies to COVID-19 disinfo sites

We have analysed nearly 500 ad-supported, high-traffic web disinformation sites with a high concentration of COVID-19 conspiracy content.

These websites include well-known disinformation sites like AmericanThinker.com, BigLeaguePolitics.com, TheGatewayPundit.com and RT.com. Many of these named sites have been flagged by others for carrying COVID-19 disinformation.

Screenshot 1: Canon ads delivered by GoogleAds

Screenshot 2: L'oreal ad delivered by Amazon

Based on these nearly 500 disinformation sites - mainly targeting English language markets in the UK and US - the GDI has found:

  • Sites spreading COVID-19 disinformation are on track to earn US$25 million in ad revenues this year.
  • Each ad dollar paid out to these sites deprives trusted media sites covering the COVID-19 pandemic of much needed revenue .
  • Google is the leader in supplying ad services to these 500 disinformation sites: Google enables the placement of US$3 out of every US$4 earned in ad revenue by the disinformation sites in the GDI sample.
  • Google, Amazon and OpenX account for 95% of the ad revenues paid to COVID-19 disinformation sites.
  • Ads placed on these sites include those for brand-names like: Amazon Prime; AstraZeneca; Ebay; Microsoft; Nissan; T-Mobile/Telekom; and Walgreens (see here for full catalogue of brands).

When brand ads appear on these sites, it is not just an issue of brand safety. Often the inadvertent ad support to disinformation sites is in direct contravention to the brand’s own corporate responsibility aims.

Some of the biggest advertisers - like P&G and Johnson & Johnson - have brands inadvertently funding COVID-19 disinformation stories, which undermine our safety and health.

Based on our findings, ads for big brands have been found funding stories that tout debunked and dangerous cures, undercut government lock-down measures, equate track-and-trace apps with state surveillance, and traffic in theories that the Chinese government and the global elite should be blamed for the virus’ spread.

As advertisers turn the spotlight on Facebook and remove their inventory from the platform, they must not lose sight of the bigger picture of their ads appearing on countless high-risk disinformation sites on the open web. Google, Amazon and others should not get a free pass from advertisers in this time of needed and increased scrutiny about where their ads are appearing - and who they are funding.

Advertisers must close the funding “back door” that the ad supported services from Google, Amazon and others provide to COVID-19 conspiracies, hate speech and other forms of disinformation.

Now is the time for a whole-of-industry solution to a whole-of-industry problem. Are advertisers up for it?

Download and read the full report here