Over 4,000 Brands Bought Programmatic Ads On COVID-19 Misinformation Websites

Coronavirus infodemic concept. Frightened woman sitting in front of computer monitor with text infodemic with phone in her hands.

Thousands of the world’s most trusted brands have bought ads on misinformation websites publishing COVID-19 myths since the pandemic began, including many of the companies now involved in the vaccination effort, a special report from NewsGuard, a US-based service that uses trained journalists to rate news and information sites, has revealed.

From February 2020 through to today, 4,315 brands ran over 42,000 unique ads on websites flagged for publishing COVID-19 falsehoods at NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center.

The service, which rates the reliability and trustworthiness of websites, said this likely accounted for millions or tens of millions of ad impressions financed by ad dollars spent on those websites.

Companies directly involved in the global vaccination effort were among those NewsGuard’s analysis found funding COVID-19 misinformation websites.

The analysis found 105 healthcare insurers and providers—including Stanford Health Care, Emory Healthcare, Northwell Health, RWJ Barnabas, Oscar Health Insurance, United Healthcare, Beaumont Health, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, New York Presbyterian and the Mayo Clinic—had advertised on websites publishing falsehoods about the pandemic.

The websites included domains such as WorldTruth.TV, which has claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine will contain a tracking microchip; TheGateWayPundit.com, which has claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci stands to “make billions” from a COVID-19 vaccine and that face masks are dangerous; and IntelliHub.com, which claimed the vaccine will alter patients’ DNA.

Vaccine makers among brands advertising

Pfizer, which currently offers a vaccine soon to be rolled out across Australia, and Merck, which recently discontinued its vaccine development efforts, were also on the list of advertisers placing ads on COVID-19 misinformation websites.

These included NOQReport.com, which among other untruths claims the pandemic was planned by Bill Gates and other billionaires, and theepochtimes.com, which has claimed that the virus was manufactured by humans.

In addition, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control sent ad dollars to COVID-19 misinformation websites, placing ads urging people to get a conventional flu shot on globaltimes.cn.

NewsGuard describes the website as “the dark-money Chinese propaganda site that doesn’t disclose it is funded and run by the Chinese Communist Party” that reported the virus originated in Europe.

The CDC also advertised on domestic COVID-19 misinformation sites, including independentsentinel.com, which claimed, among other myths identified by NewsGuard, that wearing a face mask increases the risk of COVID-19 and that a regimen of zinc and antibiotics can “cure” COVID-19.

Other prominent brands such as Starbucks, Acura, Pepsi, and Marriott also advertised on independentsentinel.com.

Additionally, TheGatewayPundit.com, which has published countless falsehoods about COVID-19, saw ads from 1,021 brands during the pandemic, including The Home Depot, Macy’s, Target, Nordstrom, Hilton, Mercedes-Benz, Rite Aid, General Mills, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Brands such as Berkshire Hathaway and Vimeo advertised on DavidIcke.com, known for prominently publishing pandemic-related falsehoods. While GlobalResearch.ca, which promoted numerous conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, saw ads from 131 brands, including Wayfair, Unilever, Adobe, and 3M.

The news comes just a month after NewsGuard revealed nearly every major brand in the US inadvertently ran automated advertisements on websites that pushed election conspiracies and misinformation.

Furthermore, the list of advertisers funding COVID-19 misinformation websites also included companies involved in distributing vaccines, NewsGuard reports.

Kroger, which distributes vaccines in its grocery stores nationwide, advertised on more than a dozen COVID-19 misinformation sites, including Intellihub.com, which falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine alters patients’ DNA and that this can result in patients having “chronic COVID” for their entire lives.

Walmart, which NewsGuard says is likely to be among the largest COVID-19 vaccine distributors at its retail stores and which recently announced it is launching its own advertising platform, advertised on 25 of the COVID-19 misinformation sites, including the Russian government-controlled propaganda website SputnikNews.com.

Media companies identified

Media companies, whose news outlets are tasked with providing accurate information about the pandemic, were also among those inadvertently funding COVID-19 misinformation websites.

Comcast advertised its MSNBC, NBC, Universal, and Comcast broadband products on 14 of the COVID-19 misinformation sites.

These, NewsGuard said, include CharlieKirk.com, which has published false claims about the drug hydroxychloroquine and described COVID-19 as a “pandemic of delusional psychosis” and disrn.com, which has claimed that COVID-19 is a manmade virus, created in a lab.

ViacomCBS, which operates CBS News, advertised on 29 COVID-19 misinformation sites, including the Russian propaganda site SputnikNews.com and AltHealthWorks.com, which has reportedly published anti-vaccine misinformation and claimed that wearing face masks is harmful.

Of the 405 sites flagged by NewsGuard’s team for publishing COVID-19 misinformation, the vast majority—over 80 per cent—were repeat offenders, meaning they had previously been flagged for publishing health misinformation.

Programmatic advertising largely to blame

NewsGuard reported that in most cases, the advertisements were likely inadvertent, placed by algorithms on programmatic ad-buying platforms like Google’s DV360 rather than intentionally by the brands involved.

But 67 per cent of all of the COVID-19 misinformation websites NewsGuard identified with ad placements had Google advertising tags on them, and 30 per cent had tags from The Trade Desk.

NewsGuard said the data demonstrate the vast scale at which programmatic advertising supports the online misinformation ecosystem—and how decisive action from top companies could severely reduce the reach of online misinformation.

If advertising platforms were to provide easy tools for avoiding misinformation websites when placing ads, NewsGuard said, it would have a significant impact on the business model for such misinformation, “vastly reducing the incentive for misinformation publishers to promote false claims”.

To review NewsGuard’s special report on COVID-19 misinformation for yourself, click here.

Featured image source: iStock/Iryna Imago

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