This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Google is funneling revenue to some of the web’s most prolific purveyors of false information in Europe, Latin America and Africa, a ProPublica investigation has found.
The company has publicly committed to fighting disinformation around the world, but a ProPublica analysis, the first ever conducted at this scale, documented how Google’s sprawling automated digital ad operation placed ads from major brands on global websites that spread false claims on such topics as vaccines, COVID-19, climate change and elections.
In one instance, Google continued to place ads on a publication in Bosnia and Herzegovina for months after the U.S. government officially imposed sanctions on the site. Google stopped doing business with the site, which the U.S. Treasury Department
described as the “personal media station” of a prominent Bosnian Serb separatist politician, only after being contacted by ProPublica.
Google ads are a major source of revenue for sites that spread election disinformation in Brazil, notably false claims about the integrity of the voting system that have been advanced by the incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro. Voters in Brazil are going to the polls on Sunday with the outcome in doubt after Bolsonaro’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round of voting.
The investigation also revealed that Google routinely places ads on sites pushing falsehoods about COVID-19 and climate change in French-, German- and Spanish-speaking countries.
The resulting ad revenue is potentially worth millions of dollars to the people and groups running these and other unreliable sites — while also making money for Google.
Platforms such as Facebook have faced stark criticism for failures to crack down on disinformation spread by people and governments on their platforms around the world. But Google hasn’t faced the same scrutiny for how its roughly $200 billion in annual ad sales provides essential funding for non-English-language websites that misinform and harm the public.
Google’s publicly announced policies bar the placement of ads on content that makes unreliable or harmful claims
on a range of issues, including health, climate, elections and democracy. Yet the investigation found Google regularly places ads, including those from major brands, on articles that appear to violate its own policy.
ProPublica’s examination showed that ads from Google are more likely to appear on misleading articles and websites that are in languages other than English, and that Google profits from advertising that appears next to false stories on subjects not explicitly addressed in its policy, including crime, politics, and such conspiracy theories as chemtrails.
A former Google leader who worked on trust and safety issues acknowledged that the company focuses heavily on English-language enforcement and is weaker across other languages and smaller markets. They told ProPublica it’s because Google invests in oversight based on three key concerns.
“The number one is bad PR — they are very sensitive to that. The second one is trying to avoid regulatory scrutiny or potentially regulatory action that could impact their business. And number three is revenue,” said the former leader, who agreed to speak on the condition that their name not be used in order not to hurt their business and career prospects. “For all these three, English-speaking markets primarily have the biggest impact. And that’s why most of the efforts are going into those.”
ProPublica used data provided by fact-checking newsrooms, researchers and website monitoring organizations to scan more than 13,000 active article pages from thousands of websites in more than half a dozen languages to determine whether they were currently earning ad revenue with Google. (To read a detailed breakdown of how ProPublica obtained and analyzed the data, see this accompanying article
The analysis found that Google placed ads on 41% of roughly 800 active online articles rated by members of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network as publishing false claims about COVID-19. The company also served ads on 20% of articles about climate change that Science Feedback, an IFCN-accredited fact-checking organization, has rated false.
A number of Google ads viewed by ProPublica appeared on articles published months or years ago, suggesting that the company’s failure to block ads on content that appears to violate its rules is a long-standing and ongoing problem.