How misinformation makes money
There has been much written about how fake news websites and other sources make money from spreading misinformation. During the 2016 election in the United States, it even became a cottage industry.
Now a new study quantifies just how much misinformers are profiting from online advertising. Spoiler: It’s a lot.
On Monday, the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index published a study based on a sample of about 20,000 websites that have been found by (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact and others to publish misinformation. It found that ad technology companies spend about $235 million annually by running ads on such sites.
“Our estimates show that ad tech and brands are unwittingly funding disinformation domains. These findings clearly demonstrate that this is a whole-of-industry problem that requires a whole-of-industry solution,” said Clare Melford, co-founder and executive director of the GDI, in a press release sent to Daniel.
The researchers found ads for big-name brands like Amazon, Office Max and Sprint on clickbait and misinforming sites like Addicting Info, RT and Twitchy. And Google led the pack in supporting them.
According to the GDI study, Google served about 70% of the websites sampled. It also provided about 37%, or $86 million annually, of their revenue. The next few companies didn’t even come close in their support for misinforming sources.
Part of the reason for that is how easy Google makes it to monetize websites. Anyone with a website can apply to use AdSense and — if they’re accepted — start placing ads on their site.
After the 2016 election, the company tried to rein that in a bit. In a statement to Reuters at the time, Google said it would restrict ads on sites that “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose of the web property.” It has no rules explicitly against misinformation.
The GDI’s latest research shows that the company still has a long way to go in preventing the monetization of misinformation. And it might look to smaller ad companies for advice.
Last August, Revcontent, a “content recommendation network,” announced that it would start demonetizing individual pieces of content that had been fact-checked as false by at least two members of the IFCN. That effort ensures that, even if a publisher is transparent about its identity and purpose, it can’t make money simply by publishing falsehoods.
Obviously, implementing a partnership between fact-checkers and Google would be harder and more complicated than with smaller ad tech companies. But the GDI’s latest research reveals that the company’s existing rules aren’t sufficient to prevent misinformers profiting from falsehoods — in spite of Google’s other efforts to elevate fact-checking. And that could spell trouble going into the 2020 election.