According to new GDI research, adverts for high street brands are inadvertently funding some of the most well-known sites for spreading disinformation in Europe. Our findings estimate that more than US$76 million in ad revenues is inadvertently being spent on these sites annually by brands like Amazon Prime, Burger King, Mercedes Benz, Samsung, Spotify and Volvo.
The placement of these online ads is enabled by a variety of well-known ad tech companies, with Google (Ad Services and DoubleClick) and Criteo leading the pack. These companies deliver ads for each site based on our online data footprint and geolocation (in this case, Germany; see screenshot 1). A map of these brand name ads across different known disinformation sites in Europe can be found here.
According to GDI research, Google serves up many of these adverts and provides ad services to 57% of the disinformation sites in the study, paying them 62% of the estimated revenues (US$48 million annually). The company’s market dominance in this problem in Europe reflects its global role in serving ads to disinformation sites globally.
Apart from Google, the French ad tech player Criteo plays a major role in serving up ads to European disinformation sites. Our findings suggest that they provide 13% of these sites with ads, resulting in payments to them worth US$13 million annually (or 17% of the overall revenues).
The other ad tech companies we covered in our research are Amazon, Moneytizer, OpenX, Pubmatic, Revcontent, Rubicon Project, Taboola, Teads, The Trade Desk, Twitter and Xandr. (see Figure 1).
All of these companies provided ad services and revenues to our sample of 1,400 known disinformation sites in Europe. This list of sites was compiled through our own data sets and by scraping public sites that track disinformation targeting EU countries, including www.EUvsDisinfo.eu. We also worked with partners watching the EU disinformation landscape – like EU DisinfoLab – to scope our sample.
The sites in our sample include the European language and country variations of global news sites like www.sputniknews.com and www.epochtimes.com. They also include national disinformation sites such as www.czechfreepress.cz (Czech Republic) and www.journalistenwatch.com/ (Germany).
These sites are getting ad revenues from the ads that companies like Google, Criteo and the others place on them, acting on behalf of advertisers.
In Europe, such ads on disinformation sites are a direct violation of the standards set out in the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation which commits to “to disrupt advertising and monetization incentives” for disinformation.
Code signatories include Google, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA).
The WFA represents a wide range of advertisers and brands, including many we found in our research. IAB counts among its members some of the ad tech companies we identified as serving ads on these sites.
While the EU Code of Practice is voluntary, signatories are expected to meet its standards.
The code is not just about a check-list. Fulfilling its standards will help to undermine the ad-based funding of disinformation sites whose content threatens the functioning of economies, political processes and societies across Europe and beyond.
Brands and ad tech companies play a critical role in preventing this public policy failure.
The GDI fully supports the principles outlined in the Code of Practice and calls on the EU to extend its mandate and set ambitious metrics that give its words impact and uptake.
We view this research as serving as a key input into the process and welcome the opportunity to work with all parties to disrupt and defund disinformation.
This work is an extension of a global study that was released in September 2019. In that ground-breaking research, GDI mapped the role of the main ad tech players in providing nearly a quarter billion dollars in ad revenues to disinformation sites globally.