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Study: Google, Amazon revenues fund pandemic disinformation

July 9, 2020

More than $25 million in ad revenues could be directed to sites spreading fake news by the end of this year, according to researchers. Advertisements for brands including L’Oreal and Microsoft have also been featured.

Amazon und Facebook sind auf dem Display eines iPhone zu sehen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Jaitner

Tech companies including Google and Amazon are paying sites that spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic millions in advertising revenue, according to a new study.

Over $25 million (€22 million) in advertisement revenues could be paid to websites spreading fake news and conspiracy theories by the end of this year, reported the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), which offers a web-based tool that rates news outlets based on their level of accuracy.

Google, Amazon and OpenX account for 95% of the ad revenues paid to COVID-19 disinformation sites, according to the study. 

Those sites include "well-known disinformation sites like AmericanThinker.com, BigLeaguePolitics.com, TheGatewayPundit.com and RT.com," the study said.

Major brands, including Bloomberg News, L'Oreal, Microsoft and T-Mobile have also featured advertisements on those pages. 

Calling for accountability

"Every dollar going into ads to known COVID-19 disinformation sites is a dollar not going to fund trusted news sites," Craig Fagan, GDI's program director, told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus prompts EU to curb spread of disinformation

Fagan believes that companies like Google and Amazon should be held more accountable for paying for the perpetuation of fake news.

"Google, Amazon and the other tech companies have a choice which sites they serve ads on," said Fagan. "We need a whole-of-industry response to a whole-of-industry problem. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to make a dollar on disinformation."

"Dynamic blocklists for sites that don't fit these corporate responsibility priorities need to be put in place," he said. "This is not censorship – companies have a right to make their decisions about what they fund."

The impact of disinformation

Fake news stories and conspiracies have also impacted people's responses to the pandemic, as they have "undercut government lockdown measures," and promoted "debunked and dangerous cures."

Additionally, the perpetuation of fake news about coronavirus plays into other conspiracy theories, including ideas about the dangers of 5G networks and the role of the "deep state," said Fagan.

Read more: Latest conspiracy theories repeat old stories

"Those already pushing the conspiracy that 5G causes diseases have now turned their sites on the coronavirus being a product of that technology," he said. 

Fake news has also given anti-vaccine rhetoric a boost. "Those that already believed that vaccines were deadly have hooked their efforts to criticize the development of a coronavirus vaccine," he said. 

The study was conducted by analyzing 480 ad-supported disinformation sites that carried a high concentration of coronavirus-related conspiracy content. 

"Disinformation is universal and an old phenomenon," Fagan added. "Our study is an attempt to frame the monetary dimensions involved and the ad tech supply chain that is providing a financial lifeline."