February 23, 2021

Ad-funded COVID-19 conspiracy sites: A look at the EU

In the EU and elsewhere, disinformation on COVID-19’s source, preventative measures and vaccines undermines trust in the public health response and leads to real world harms. Yet new research from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) shows that ads from well-known brands like Amazon Prime, American Express and Microsoft continue to unwittingly fund this content in leading EU member states.

GDI’s overview — focused on France, Germany, Italy and Spain — shows a sample of the brands exposed and some of the ad tech companies funding this content to underscore the urgency of EU action to defund disinformation. The ad tech companies that GDI found servicing this COVID-19 disinformation content are based in the EU and US: AdForm, AdRoll, Ad You Like, Amazon, Criteo, Google, Taboola, and Xandr.

Only a few ad tech companies have policies that bar delivering ads to this content. Of the eight companies that serviced the ads in the screenshot deck, only AdRoll, Google and Taboola have specific COVID-19 disinformation content policies.

  • Ad Roll: "There should be no unverifiable claims [regarding COVID-19]."
  • Google: "We do not allow content that: relates to a current, major health crisis and contradicts authoritative, scientific consensus."
  • Taboola: "No [COVID-19] sensationalized titles or conspiracy theories that may cause panic or fear, e.g. “The Shortage of Sanitizers Is Imminent”, “The End of the World is Near”, “The Untold Truths About COVID-19” etc.).”

Figure 1: Selected COVID-19 related ad and publisher policies for featured tech companies

Yet as the screenshots show, even these policies are not always aligned and are often being violated, with brands being put at risk. These policy voids and implementation failures reflect an absence of an industry-wide ad policy to defund COVID-19 disinformation. For GDI, effective implementation would mean that ad services would not be provided to content that violates companies’ terms of service. This is not a question of freedom of speech or expression. While free speech is protected, the right to profit from that speech is not.

The research findings are based on a desk review done by GDI in January and February 2021. Focused on ad tech company policies and ad-funded news sites which have been flagged publicly for carrying COVID-19 disinformation in the past, this site list was compiled by drawing on the work of GDI and others, including the EU’s initiative EUvsDisinfo. The review covers a selection of high-risk and ad-funded sites targeting key EU countries:

  • France (6 sites)
  • Germany (5 sites)
  • Italy (6 sites)
  • Spain (4 sites)

Urgent action is needed to ensure that well-known brands do not fund COVID-19 conspiracy content. It has been nearly one year since the COVID-19 virus outbreak has been declared a pandemic and since GDI began tracking ad-funded COVID-19 disinformation.

As the EU discusses new proposed regulation this year, GDI will increasingly spotlight how brand ads inadvertently fund COVID-19 conspiracies in member states.

The European Commission is driving work to end the financial incentives to create disinformation - online ads, e-payment, ecommerce and other monetisation platforms. These measures were proposed at the end of 2020 and are up for discussion this year, including the EU Digital Services Act (DSA) and the EU Democracy Action Plan (EDAP). The community is also waiting on an update to the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation in the coming weeks.

The EU is at a watershed moment to defund disinformation as a new set of policies are being pursued.

GDI looks forward to working with the European Commission and member states to defund disinformation that undermines countries’ public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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