Nike and Amazon among brands advertising on Covid plot sites | Coronavirus

Dozens of the world’s biggest brands, including Nike, Amazon, Ted Baker and Asos, have advertised on websites spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories about Covid-19, it has emerged. The companies, along with an NHS service, are among a string of household names whose ads appear to have helped fund websites that host false and far-fetched claims, such as that powerful people secretly designed the pandemic , or that vaccines have caused thousands of deaths.

Analysis of nearly 60 sites, carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and shared with the Observer, found that the ads were placed in the ‘opaque’ digital advertising market, which is expected to be worth more than $ 455 billion (£ 387 billion) this year.

Digital advertising is delivered through complex networks of technology companies, including Google, which combine online data about people with available advertising space, then sell access to people on the Internet as they browse.

Experts have said that the design of this digital advertising architecture means that big brands and their customers may have unwittingly funded the disinformation of Covid-19.

Dr Augustine Fou, an independent advertising fraud researcher and former employee from advertising agency Omnicom, said the ad auction system means these sites mix with other, more harmless ones.

“Because they now have a source of funding, they can not only survive but also proliferate,” he said. “And that’s why we see this huge problem. Due to the lack of transparency… the companies and organizations that buy the ads might not know that their marketing is showing up on – and potentially funds – these sources of disinformation.

Ads for Amazon services have been found on more than 30 sites that broadcast fake news ranging from Covid conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates to claims that mRNA vaccines are “toxic.”

An NHS diabetes website was promoted alongside articles from a well-known anti-vaccine campaigner and the false claim that you can’t catch a virus.

“We know the advertising ecosystem is incredibly opaque,” ​​says Raegan MacDonald of Mozilla, who makes the Firefox Internet browser. “It’s almost like we’re not supposed to be looking under the hood. Because if you do, you find this mess.

Advertisements for Nike, Honda, US drugstore chain Walgreens and eBay were among those recorded on sites disseminating misinformation. Photograph: Acorn 1 / Alamy

MacDonald warns the system is “militarized” and potentially endangers public health. “What I really hope is that it will be kind of a drop in the bucket for brands,” she said.

The office looked at sites that host misinformation and also serve advertisements, using a combination of manual verification by researchers in the US and UK and automated systems that “crawl” the sites to record what is wrong. happens when a person visits them.

The pages were identified using the Global Disinformation Index, with ad analysis provided by Rocky Moss, co-founder and CEO of the ad-quality platform Deepsee.io, and Braedon Vickers, who built a search platform called Well-Known.

Many companies that run digital advertising are little known outside of the industry, which is dominated by Google. Moss’s analysis using Deepsee’s crawlers – which simulate a person visiting web pages – found ads served by Google for nearly 30 major brands, each appearing on two or more disinformation websites .

The most common were for Amazon Pharmacy, the pharmacy of the online retail giant, which has itself become a major player in digital advertising. Ads for Amazon Pharmacy, which is not available in the UK, accounted for over 1% of the 42,000 recorded by “crawlers” and were found on more than 30 of the disinformation sites.

Google did not address the presence of ads showing on sites identified by the bureau, but said it has taken appropriate action against violations of disinformation policies, including preventing publishers from making money from it. specific pages or all of their sites, following repeated breaches.

“Protecting consumers and credible businesses operating on our platforms is a priority for us,” a Google spokesperson told the office.

Next to Amazon Pharmacy, the next most featured advertisers were computer maker Lenovo, which appeared on 11 sites, and US bank Discover. Lenovo said, “Like many businesses today, Lenovo uses the Google AdSense platform to serve digital advertisements to consumers on the Internet. With any type of digital advertising, we give clear advice to our media partners and agencies on what is acceptable for our brand. Lenovo does not approve the placement of ads placed on disinformation websites about Covid-19 or condone the content it has appeared alongside, and we will work with our media partners to review our existing protection systems. “

Ads for Nike, Honda, US drugstore chain Walgreens and eBay were also among those recorded on several sites disseminating disinformation. British fashion firms Ted Baker and Asos, and auction house Sotheby’s have also appeared on several sites.

Xyla Health & Wellbeing, who heads the NHS Diabetes Prevention Program, said she took action to prevent her posts from appearing on the sites.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs was promoted at two sites, one of which mistakenly described mRNA vaccines as “genetic modification injection” and claimed they made people more likely to catch Covid. The other site repeated the false claim that the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu.

An American Honda spokesperson said, “We are currently working to determine how our advertising may have appeared on the websites in question. We will never endorse Covid disinformation or knowingly allow our advertising on such websites. Honda strongly encourages our associates to get fully immunized and has organized free immunization clinics in our operations to make this possible. “

A spokesperson for Ted Baker said, “The placement of these ads is determined by the Google Display Network. We can confirm that we have worked with Google to resolve this issue and that our ads will no longer appear on these specific sites in the future.

Asos has reportedly added disinformation sites to its banned list. A spokesperson said, “Like most other brands, we regularly review the websites on which our advertisements appear and have strict requirements and processes in place to ensure that these websites align with our values ​​and standards. those of our customers.

“The tools available, however, will not always flag some smaller or newer sites. When this happens, whenever an issue is brought to our attention, we take immediate action to make sure our ads are removed, as we did in this case.

The other companies declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment.

Advertising experts said companies should redouble their efforts to monitor where their ads appear and cannot just pretend ignorance.

Fou, the independent ad fraud researcher, said businesses buying online ads shouldn’t trust agencies buying ad space for them and should conduct regular surveys instead.

“All these middlemen are middlemen … so any dollar that goes through their platforms, they make more money,” says Fou. “They have no incentive to reduce […] on brand safety issues. In fact, they have every interest in letting it pass.

He said the sheer size of the online advertising market means that even a tiny fraction of total spending equates to “big money for the bad guys.”

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