The GDI has shown how ad-funded disinformation is a big business, especially in this time of the COVID-19 infodemic. Adverts can inadvertently fund disinformation sites and conspiracy theories, creating sizeable brand safety concerns for advertisers. Sadly this also happens when those advertisers are non-profits. It is a particular irony that the advertising dollars of non-profits can end up funding the sort of dangerous conspiracies they are striving to address.
Take the case of this example of an American Red Cross ad placed by Google on a story promoting an anti- vax coronavirus conspiracy, content that is specifically and unfortunately undermining its own work.
Screenshot 1: American Red Cross ad delivered by Google on COVID-19 disinfo story
There is also this Special Olympics ad placed next to content that openly questions Russia’s role in attempted hacks of Covid-19 vaccine research (screenshot 2). The article also promotes vaccine resistance and deep state conspiracy theories. The box on the left of the screenshot shows the ad exchange that placed the advert, in this case Google.
Screenshot 2: Special Olympics ad delivered by Google on COVID-19 disinfo story
In another example, a Save the Children advert, served by Google, appears alongside an article from TheGatewayPundit.com which talks about how the deaths of Americans from COVID-19 could have been stopped if the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine had been used (see screenshot 3).
Screenshot 3: Save the Children ad delivered by Google on COVID-19 disinfo story
We also found this example from Global Research.ca for the Alzheimer’s Association, whose ad is inadvertently funding conspiracies about the origins of the virus (see screenshot 4).
Screenshot 4: Alzheimer’s Association ad delivered by Google on COVID-19 disinfo story
Finally, there is this example on GatewayPundit.com featuring a deep state conspiracy about track and trace systems with an accompanying ad by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (screenshot 5).
Screenshot 5: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews ad delivered by Google on COVID-19 disinfo story
We have documented additional examples of NGO ads on COVID-19 conspiracies here.
When a charity’s money inadvertently funds disinformation, it is a double blow. Not only does this ad funding create a financial incentive to create harmful disinformation. But the funders, be they individual givers or large foundations, whose donations support these charities and pay for the adverts, are unwittingly funding the sorts of harms their donations were meant to prevent.
Large companies have the resources to pay brand safety companies to help protect their brands from the sort of high risk ad placement that these screenshots show. But charities often do not have the means, and nor should donors’ money be spent preventing something that should not be possible in the first place.
These examples all used the ad services provided by Google, yet the problem is widespread across the online ad ecosystem.
Tech companies providing ad services – from Amazon to Taboola – must ensure the right checks-and-balances on the content to which they provide ad services. This is not about freedom of speech. You may be able to create content, but you do not have the right to make money off of it.
What is encouraging is that in July, Google moved to suspend the ad services they provide to COVID-19 health conspiracy stories and sites. This policy change will be implemented in mid-August and comes after increased scrutiny by GDI and others of Google ad services on such sites. GDI research has found that Google places more than 75 percent of the ads on nearly 500 known COVID-19 disinformation sites. In total, the GDI estimates that these sites will take in at least US$25 million this year.
Google’s pivot to remove Covid19 conspiracies from their ad funding services should make it much less likely that any advertisers, including non-profits, end up funding coronavirus disinformation via Google’s networks.
Going forward – we hope to see more broad-based ad tech industry initiatives to mitigate the risk of funding disinformation, not just around medical disinformation but across all the risk categories that GDI is tracking.
Nonprofits are a particularly sensitive kind of advertiser. Google recognises this with several initiatives such as the recently announced 1 billion dollars in search ads grants. Many other ad tech platforms also offer free or reduced advertising services to not-for-profits. For example, Xandr is providing free digital ad space to distribute “life-saving messages” from partner organisations, including the CDC, Sesame Workshop and the Red Cross.
GDI calls on all those involved in the programmatic advertising system to make the same commitment and stop providing ad services to COVID-19 conspiracies.
Vigilance on the part of all advertisers – and especially charities and those who fund them – has never been more important.