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Despite its claims, Google has not acted on Fake News on its AdSense platform.

Summary: Google has told the Commons Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee that they take misinformation seriously and that they act quickly on sites making money from Fake News on their AdSense platform. This is, however, at odds with our research, which has found a network of Fake News sites, publishing a steady stream of content with the potential to drive hateful extremism, all making money from AdSense. Despite repeated entreaties, Google continues to both monetise and profit from these sites. Fake News does not just cause harm to the individuals who consume it; by cannibalising revenues, it is doing irreparable damage to the journalism industry itself.

Google vs Reality

On Thursday 30 April, Alina Dimofte, Public Policy and Government Relations Manager at Google UK, appeared before the Online Harms sub-committee. While giving evidence, she received a question from a committee member, Phillip Davies MP.

“Research from the Global Disinformation Index – which is an independent not-for-profit organisation working with Governments, businesses and civil society – shows that Google is funding nearly 90% of coronavirus conspiracy sites by serving the [sic] advertising.You presumably also profit from selling this advertising. Is this not remarkably reckless? Why do you not check the sites on which you are serving advertising before you publish?”

In her response, Dimofte made specific assurances about Google’s approach to dealing with sites spreading Fake News and conspiracy theories on their AdSense platform:

“Whenever we find these types of websites that are peddling misinformation and disinformation, we take quick action.”

“When it comes to COVID-19, we have updated our policies to ensure that our advertising does not run on any websites that are peddling medical misinformation or are contesting the existence of the virus or treatments that have been prescribed by authorities like the NHS or WHO.”

The new policy that Dimofte is referring to is the Google Publisher Policy for Misrepresentative Content. It was published by AdSense in February 2020, and came into effect in March 2020. The policy aims to clarify that:

“We do not allow content that makes claims that are demonstrably false and could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process. Additionally, the update will also make clear that we do not allow content that deceives users through manipulated media related to politics, social issues or matters of public concern.”

Google’s existing policies already clarify that their AdSense platform will not do business with any site that:

  • “Promotes content, products or services using false, dishonest or deceptive claims.”

  • “Deceives users through manipulated media related to politics, social issues or matters of public concern.”

Our Findings

In April 2020, Stop Funding Fake News decided to focus its campaigning on six Fake News websites which publish Coronavirus-related misinformation.

The sites were selected as they are major players in the online misinformation ecosystem, either because of their direct traffic; their ability to act as a source for a network of fellow-traveller sites; or their reach into Facebook Groups and other social media platforms.

All of these sites make money from the GoogleAds network. They are:

Without sustained pressure, Google will continue to profit from misinformation

Our research shows that despite their assurances, GoogleAds is not acting on coronavirus Fake News on their AdSense platform. This status quo puts profitability over quality information that could save lives, and it generates income for both Google and the hate/ misinformation actors behind these misinformation sites at the expense of unsuspecting brands.

These lies create a toxic combination of mistrust in authoritative sources of information and false confidence borne of false assurance: both of which have a human cost. One individual who doesn’t believe in the existence of COVID-19 can spread the virus to countless others who are following government guidelines. If vaccine hesitancy rates continue to rise, we might end up in the situation where we have the tools to defeat COVID-19 but people’s unwillingness to be vaccinated will put national health and security at risk.

Without sustained pressure from Westminster and others in the sector, Google will continue to profit from misinformation. They must act now.

The Evidence

  • This article on Zero Hedge defended a previous article they had written erroneously doxxing a scientist as the “man behind the global coronavirus pandemic”, which got them banned from Twitter.

  • This article claims the virus was “never properly identified” and that “this event was premeditated and serves agendas far beyond simply protecting the public health”.

  • Articles like this one, which promotes a conspiracy theory about China stealing coronavirus and weaponising it (originally found on Great Game India), helps Zero Hedge to bring in over 45 million hits a month, which could make them over $3m a year thanks to Google Ads (based on their own revenue calculator).

  • This article on Zero Hedge claims “the cure of coronavirus already exists … it’s your own body’s immune system”, describes Vitamin C as a “magic bullet”, and links the pandemic to “Event 201” and 5G. It was read by nearly 40,000 people, each click making money for Google and Zero Hedge.

  • This article on Global Research describes coronavirus as a “manufactured pandemic”. The author says: “If you want to create a totally false panic about a totally false pandemic – pick a coronavirus”.

  • Articles like this one are fuelling vaccine hesitancy which could one day render a coronavirus vaccine ineffective. The article claims – contrary to WHO advice and the evidence – that vaccines are “unreliable and [a] dangerous way to prevent illness”.

  • Great Game India publishes conspiracy theories about scientists linked to coronavirus being assassinated to generate suspicion of government or global government conspiracies.

  • Great Game India describes UV light as “the cure that time forgot”. It links to another one of its articles which accuses the WHO of “pushing cartelised medicines and vaccines”. This directly contests treatments and medical advice described by the authorities like the WHO.

  • GoogleAds serves G News, which publishes conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.

  • This article on G News claims, without evidence “that the American version of the virus is far worse than that in China or Europe” because it was designed as a “weapon to kill the Americans”.

  • This article spins a Daily Mail report that “migrants” are receiving medical assessments which “include looking for the symptoms of coronavirus” into a Fake News story about “illegal migrants” getting priority testing ahead of medical staff.

  • Reposting of a Politicalite story pushing the debunked conspiracy theory that coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan.

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