The world's biggest brands advertise on COVID-19 misinformation sites, report finds

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Prominent brands have been advertising on websites dedicated to COVID-19 misinformation throughout the pandemic — often unknowingly because of the opaque design of the digital advertising market, according to a report released Sept. 18 by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The nonprofit's analysis, which spanned a three-month period, found that ads for well-known consumer brands were displayed on almost 60 COVID-19 misinformation sites spreading falsehoods about vaccines, the pandemic's origins and the government's pandemic response.

The report attributes this problem to the opaque nature of the digital advertising market, in which Google and other tech companies track users' browsing data. Google and other companies sell ad space to brands by allowing their ads to appear on sites users are visiting. 

Because the system lacks transparency, brands often don't know their ads are appearing on misinformation sites, potentially funding the spread of falsehoods, according to Augustine Fou, PhD, an ad fraud researcher and former chief digital officer of advertising agency Omnicom's healthcare consultancy group.

"Because they now have a source of funding, they can not only survive but also proliferate," Dr. Fou said. "And that’s why we’re seeing this huge problem."

Among the brands the report found to be advertising on COVID-19 misinformation sites were Amazon, Walgreens, eBay, Discover and Honda. Ads for Amazon Pharmacy, which appeared on more than 30 misinformation sites, made up more than 1 percent of ads the report found on misinformation sites.

The report also found ads for the Department of Veterans Affairs on two COVID-19 misinformation sites. The VA said it proactively prevents its ads from appearing on harmful sites, but that "due to the tempo of new information and websites that come online daily it makes it extremely difficult to guarantee that our ads won’t appear on any sites like the ones shared, but it is rare and occurs only infrequently."

To address the issue, Dr. Fou said companies buying ads should conduct their own investigations instead of trusting the companies they use to deliver their ads.

 

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