Google, Amazon and several large adtechs are helping fund the spread of disinformation about COVID-19 by placing unknowing brands’ advertisements on websites with false claims about the pandemic, according to a new report.

The Global Disinformation Index, a UK government-backed group seeking to combat the spread of disinformation online, published an analysis this week of nearly 50 websites known to be posting disinformation and debunked COVID-19 theories, including that it is a Chinese bioweapon and has links to 5G.

By facilitating the placements of online advertisements on such sites – and subsequent revenue to the publisher – GDI claims the advertising technology companies, including Google and Amazon, are complicit in funding the problem, according to the authors of the report.

The study found Google and its subsidiary DoubleClick are providing advertising services to 86 per cent of the dubious sites, despite publicly pledging to clean up COVID-19 fraud and disinformation last week. Other adtechs, including Amazon, Xandr (formerly AppNexus), Rubicon Project and Taboola were also present on at least 10 per cent of the sites.

A spokesperson for Google said it is committed to helping its users “surfacing helpful, authoritative information” on COVID-19, and questioned the report methodology.

“Similar to past reports, this report is flawed. GDI doesn’t detail how it defines disinformation, nor does it provide the full list of domains examined. 

“We have strict policies against misrepresentative content and take action against sites that violate our policies. We will continue to elevate quality content about the COVID-19 outbreak from authoritative sources to protect users.”

Amazon, which had advertising services present on 20 per cent of the sites checked by GDI, was contacted for comment but did not provide a response by publication. 

A screenshot from GDI allegedly showing an ad for Amazon Prime served by Google on a conspiracy site.

GDI acknowledged tech giants are taking some steps to stop misinformation on their own platforms, but says at the same time their advertising services are helping fund the problem elsewhere.

“By providing ad services to these sites that promote coronavirus conspiracy theories, ad tech companies are inadvertently funding and fueling the problem,” GDI states.

The report says brands like American Express, Allianz, Hyundai, CBS and Spotify all had their advertisements placed on the disinformation sites through adtechs’ programmatic advertising, an automated way of placing ads on websites based on demand and the user which will see it.

The method allows automated buying and selling of advertising inventory in fractions of a second, which means advertisers can show different ads to different users based on their profiles and browsing history.

But the automation comes at a cost, removing a layer of oversight and raising questions for brand safety.

Adtech’s response

While advertising remains Google’s biggest source of revenue and becomes an increasing part of Amazon’s, it has always been adtechs’ core business. But the industry has long struggled to clean up its bad actors.

Taboola, a global adtech, also says it is committed to cleaning up the content of ads it served in relation COVID-19. But its services were still present on 10 per cent of the sites analysed by GDI.

The company declined to comment on the GDI report specifically and pointed to a company blog post from last week where it pledged to clean up the ads it served including rejecting ads for facemasks or ads with false claims.

But those policies are difficult to enforce in a programmatic environment, GDI says, and don’t address the inadvertent funding of misinformation.

According to GDI, “Even if Taboola manages to perfectly enforce these policies, they, unfortunately, have overlooked the content they fund through providing ad placement services to sites carrying coronavirus disinformation.” 

Criteo, which is currently being investigated by the French data regulators for alleged privacy breaches and had a presence on 8 per cent of the disinformation sites analysed by GDI, told Which-50 it has “rigorous guidelines” to provide advertising services that benefit publishers, advertisers, and consumers.

The French retargeting giant said it works with external verification companies to improve transparency and quality.

“In addition, we provide our advertisers with the necessary tools to decide which news sources align with their brand identity and constitute a brand-suitable environment. 

“We recognise that the sharing of inaccurate information through “fake news” is a very real problem on the Internet, and we call on the digital community to come together to find an industry-supported solution to eliminate it.  

Xandr and Rubicon declined to respond to the GDI report or how they prevent inadvertently funding disinformation.

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