News Brief

Google ads are funneling money into disinformation sites

The online disinformation industry is booming — and unless a number of key measures are implemented, it’s only set to get more lucrative, a new report warns.

Around a quarter of a billion dollars in ad revenue is funding disinformation, according to estimates in the study by the Global Disinformation Index, a London nonprofit. The report’s findings suggest fake news websites currently make significant amounts of money by hosting digital ads on their sites — and most of them are served by Google’s ad tool.

The report, which looked at 20,000 disinformation websites, found that Google was leading the charge, with its ad tool funneling nearly $87 million every year into websites that actively seek to misinform, such as pseudoscience sites, extremist hubs and conspiracy theory domains.

The report also found that by using ad tools like Google’s, Amazon’s or other digital ad hosting companies, leading brands are — likely inadvertently — advertising their products and services via fake news peddlers. Household names like American Airlines, Audi, Honda and Sprint were all found to have ads hosted by disinformation platforms.

“If a household, well-known brand is seen on that site it might add an air of legitimacy to the content that they’re reading,” said Craig Fagan, program director at the Global Disinformation Index.

“We see this as a whole industry problem,” Fagan continued. “At any moment, companies and brands are having their ads bid on by disinformation sites.” Fagan explained that the GDI believed that brands and ad tech companies most likely don’t know that they’re funding disinformation.

Part of the problem, Fagan said, is a lack of awareness from the business community. “Right now brands don’t have disinformation as part of their criteria for brand safety,” Fagan said, describing how companies’ marketing departments don’t actively veto advertising with disinformation platforms in the same way they would pornography or gambling sites.

“Brands and ad tech companies need a way to keep up with the ever changing problem of disinformation,” said Dr Danny Rogers, chief technology officer at GDI. The nonprofit said it is building a tool which would assess the disinformation risk of websites in real time, to help combat this problem in the future.

The report ends with a number of recommendations about improving ad tech. These include pushing for transparency about where ad exchanges and brands are placing their adverts. The authors also advocate creating a real-time list of risky domains so that ad buyers can choose whether to include them in their spend. Brands should also target their ad budgets to quality news domains, which would improve brand safety.

The report warns that its findings are likely a drop in the ocean — describing them as “a snapshot in time of a problem that goes beyond 20,000 sites.” With digital ad spending surpassing $100 billion in 2018, and poised to overtake the traditional ad industry in 2021, this issue is not going away.