Google, Amazon Funnel Money to Virus Conspiracy Sites: Study

(Bloomberg) — Digital advertising platforms run by Google, Amazon.com Inc. and other tech companies will funnel at least $25 million to websites spreading misinformation about Covid-19 this year, according to a study released Wednesday.

Google’s platforms will provide $19 million, or $3 out of every $4 that the misinformation sites get in ad revenue. OpenX, a smaller digital ad distributor, handles about 10% of the money, while Amazon’s technology delivers roughly $1.7 million, or 7%, of the digital marketing spending these sites will receive, according to a research group called the Global Disinformation Index.

GDI made the estimates in a study that analyzed ads running between January and June on 480 English language websites identified as publishers of virus misinformation. Some of the ads were for brands including cosmetics giant L’Oreal SA, furniture website Wayfair Inc. and imaging technology company Canon Inc. The data exclude social-media and online-video services, so the true total is likely much higher.

“This report is flawed in that it neither defines what should be considered disinformation nor are its revenue calculations transparent or realistic,” a Google spokesperson said.

The company doesn’t check whether websites are publishing truthful or accurate information before running ads. However, the internet giant reviewed 10 articles highlighted by the study where Google ads ran. It demonetized five of the web pages, meaning it removed the ability to make money from ads.

“Google has strict publisher policies designed to prevent harmful, dangerous and fraudulent content from monetizing. We also continue to take an aggressive approach to COVID-19 content that makes harmful medical claims contradicting the guidance of global health authorities,” the spokesperson added. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

Governments and health officials are still learning more about the virus, and this has allowed misinformation to flourish online. Silicon Valley giants have pledged to crack down, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google has removed ads from sites that violate its policies. However, GDI thinks these platforms need to do more to limit the spread of misinformation.

“The difference between what the companies say publicly about their dedication to not monetizing hate speech and harmful content, especially around the pandemic, is not matching up with what our data is telling us that’s actually happening,” said Danny Rogers, co-founder of the Global Disinformation Index.

In an ad delivered on May 19 by Amazon, a L’Oreal product was promoted on Americanthinker.com next to an article titled “Is Big Pharma Suppressing Hydroxychloroquine?” Earlier this month, Google served up a Bloomberg News ad on the website Bigleaguepolitics.com, according to the GDI report.

The Global Disinformation Index is a U.K.-based research group that provides disinformation risk ratings on media sites all over the world. GDI said it presented Google, Amazon and OpenX with the latest findings from its report and none of the tech companies provided a formal response. The group updates its research weekly and often tells tech companies when their platforms place ads on misinformation sites.

The research group releases this information, in part, as a way to alert advertisers when their marketing spots show up on this kind of website. These brands can help by pulling ads from tech platforms when they see issues like this, Rogers said.

(Updates with no comment from Amazon in sixth paragraph)

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