Nearly every major brand in the US inadvertently ran automated advertisements on websites that pushed election conspiracies and misinformation, a special report from NewsGuard, a US-based service that uses trained journalists to rate news and information sites, has revealed.
From 1 October 2019 to 12 January 2020, 1,668 brands ran 8,776 unique ads on the 160 sites flagged in NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracking Center for publishing falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the election.
Major corporations like American Express, non-profits like Planned Parenthood, prominent universities like Harvard and Stanford—and even taxpayer-funded government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—are just a few examples of organisations NewsGuard found had ads running on problematic sites.
In one example, NewsGuard found that Disney, a brand it said prides itself on “being apolitical” and “family-friendly”, had ads on CharlieKirk.com, a site that repeatedly publishes false claims about the election.
The report also identified that most misinformation publishers are repeat offenders.
Of the election misinformation sites for which programmatic advertising data was available, 71 per cent had previously been flagged by NewsGuard for publishing misinformation about COVID-19—and in many cases, for publishing other falsehoods prior to the pandemic.
For example, before publishing election myths and conspiracy theories, ZeroHedge.com promoted false claims that COVID-19 is manmade and echoed widely debunked Russian propaganda narratives.
The site earns a trust score of 12.5 out of 100 on NewsGuard’s rating system; however, despite its credibility problems, ZeroHedge.com received ad revenue from at least 250 brands over the past three months.
Within the report, NewsGuard called out these and many other sites for being part of the online information ecosystem that fed people misinformation, leading to the insurrection on the US Capitol.
“Programmatic advertising data shows that many of the world’s largest and most trusted brands have been financially supporting websites, including sites funded by the Russian government, that spread election-fraud myths and conspiracy theories,” NewsGuard said.
Report highlights problems with programmatic
Most advertisers don’t intentionally have their ads appear on these types of websites, Axios reported, but the digital advertising ecosystem can make such content hard to avoid completely.
The NewsGuard report highlights a major issue with programmatic advertising: it notes that programmatic systems are so automated, and their processes so complicated, that marketers for most brands only see top-line metrics about ad performance, total impressions served, and the like.
“Instead, brands trust their campaign placements to agencies, brand safety and ad verification companies, and ad exchanges, which promise varying forms of protection against ad placements on unsafe or untrustworthy content,” NewsGuard said.
“Yet despite these measures, our analysis shows that hundreds of top brands have nonetheless ended up placing ads on misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“While brand safety companies have been able to keep programmatic ads off of sites publishing pornography and using hate speech, their artificial intelligence tools are unable to differentiate between generally trustworthy sites and sites that publish misinformation and hoaxes.”
Taken as a whole, NewsGuard said the data suggest that brands seeking to avoid funding misinformation could address much of the problem simply by avoiding ad placements on sites that have a history of repeatedly publishing falsehoods.
Brands could then target ads to sites that have a history of publishing credible information and strong transparency practices.