Special Report: Advertising on COVID-19 Misinformation

Thousands of the world’s most trusted brands—including Pepsi, Starbucks, Comcast, Verizon, Marriott, and even the CDC—have funded COVID-19 misinformation, including Chinese and Russian propaganda websites

An analysis of programmatic advertising data finds over 4,000 brands have bought ads on misinformation websites publishing COVID-19 myths since the pandemic began, including many of the companiessuch as Pfizer and 105 hospital systems and health insurers now involved in the vaccination effort.

By Matt Skibinski, GM of NewsGuard

As soon as COVID-19 began spreading around the world last year, misinformation about the virus began spreading on the internet. In what the World Health Organization termed an “Infodemic,” hundreds of dangerous myths—from conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins that led patients to distrust health institutions to false supposed “cures” for the disease to myths about COVID-19 vaccines—spread widely on social media networks and hundreds of misinformation websites.

A year later, as vaccination efforts ramp up worldwide, along with an acceleration of anti-vaccine hoaxes, the impact of that misinformation has become clearer than ever. A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found a measurable drop in patients’ openness to COVID-19 vaccination after being exposed to misinformation about the disease—which may be one reason why some hospitals are seeing as many as half of their eligible staff members declining the vaccine.

Last year, the WHO called on its members to undertake efforts to combat COVID-19 misinformation, leading a wide range of companies and institutions, from governments to technology platforms to hospital systems to launched initiatives aimed at doing so.

But an analysis of programmatic advertising data finds a disconnect between those well-intentioned efforts and the programmatic advertising campaigns that those same companies and institutions finance. Throughout the pandemic, many of the world’s largest and most trusted brands have been financially supporting misinformation about COVID-19, placing thousands of programmatic advertisements on websites that have published falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the pandemic, undermining public health efforts.

From February of 2020 through today, 4,315 brands ran over 42,000 unique ads on websites flagged for publishing COVID-19 falsehoods at NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, likely accounting for millions or tens of millions of ad impressions financed by ad dollars spent on those websites.

In most cases, the advertisements were likely inadvertent, placed by algorithms on programmatic ad-buying platforms like Google’s DV360 rather than intentionally by the brands involved. But the data demonstrate the vast scale at which programmatic advertising supports the online misinformation ecosystem—and how decisive action from top companies could severely reduce the reach of online misinformation.

Companies Fighting COVID-19 Fueled COVID-19 Misinformation

Our analysis, which combined data from NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center with data from Moat Pro, found that a wide range of brands from across nearly every major industry had run advertisements on COVID-19 misinformation websites, with 2,346 of the 4,315 brands advertising on more than one such site.

Advertisers, agencies, and ad-tech companies interested in the full data set may request data access here.

Companies directly involved in the global vaccination effort were among those our analysis found funding COVID-19 misinformation websites. The analysis found 105 healthcare insurers and providers—including Stanford Health Care, Emory Healthcare, Northwell Health, RWJ Barnabas, Oscar Health Insurance, United Healthcare, Beaumont Health, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, New York Presbyterian and the Mayo Clinic—had advertised on websites publishing falsehoods about the pandemic. The sites included domains such as WorldTruth.TV, which has claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine will contain a tracking microchip; TheGateWayPundit.com, which has claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci stands to “make billions” from a COVID-19 vaccine and that face masks are dangerous; and IntelliHub.com, which claimed that that the vaccine will alter patients’ DNA.

Pfizer, which currently offers a vaccine, and Merck, which recently discontinued its vaccine development efforts, were also on the list of advertisers placing ads on COVID-19 misinformation websites, such as NOQReport.com, which among other falsehoods has claimed that the pandemic was planned by Bill Gates and other billionaires, and theepochtimes.com, which has claimed that the virus was manufactured by humans.

Even the Centers for Disease Control sent ad dollars to COVID-19 misinformation websites, placing ads urging people to get a conventional flu shot on globaltimes.cn, the dark-money Chinese propaganda site that doesn’t disclose it is funded and run by the Chinese Communist Party and that reported that the virus originated in Europe. The CDC also advertised on domestic COVID-19 misinformation sites, including independentsentinel.com, which claimed, among other myths, that wearing a face mask increases the risk of COVID-19 and that a regimen of zinc and antibiotics can “cure” COVID-19. (Other prominent brands such as Starbucks, Acura, Pepsi, and Marriott also advertised on independentsentinel.com.)

The list of advertisers funding COVID-19 misinformation websites also included companies involved in distributing vaccines. For example, Kroger, which distributes vaccines in its grocery stores nationwide, advertised on more than a dozen COVID-19 misinformation sites, including Intellihub.com, which falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine alters patients’ DNA and that this can result in patients having “chronic COVID” for their entire lives.

Walmart, which is likely to be among the large COVID-19 vaccine distributors at its retail stores and which recently announced it is launching its own advertising platform, advertised on 25 of the COVID-19 misinformation sites, including the Russian government-controlled propaganda site SputnikNews.com.

Media companies whose news outlets are tasked with providing accurate information about the pandemic were also among those inadvertently funding COVID-19 misinformation websites. Comcast advertised its MSNBC, NBC, Universal, and Comcast broadband products on 14 of the COVID-19 misinformation sites, including CharlieKirk.com, which has published false claims about the drug hydroxychloroquine and described COVID-19 as a “pandemic of delusional psychosis” and disrn.com, which has claimed that COVID-19 is a manmade virus, created in a lab.

ViacomCBS, which operates CBS News, advertised on 29 COVID-19 misinformation sites, including the Russian propaganda site SputnikNews.com and AltHealthWorks.com, which has published anti-vaccine misinformation and claimed that wearing face masks is harmful.

Mobile Providers Funded Websites Claiming 5G Causes COVID-19

One of the most persistent myths about COVID-19 has been the false claim that the pandemic was caused or exacerbated by 5G internet technology. In April of 2020, after multiple 5G cell phone towers were vandalized in the U.K., the British telecommunications regulator OfCom released data showing that more than half of the U.K. population had encountered COVID-19 misinformation, the most common narrative of which was that 5G was related to the pandemic.

Yet even as the false narrative spread far and wide–with real-world consequences–major global mobile providers advertised on numerous websites publishing COVID-19 misinformation, including the 5G myth.

Verizon, for example, advertised on 35 separate COVID-19 misinformation sites, including sites like WorldTruthTV.com, which falsely claimed that 5G circuit boards were marked with the code “COV-19,” indicating they cause the disease–along with other false claims, such as that COVID-19 was patented by a Bill Gates-tied organization.

AT&T, Sprint, Boost Mobile, and Motorola similarly advertised on COVID-19 misinformation websites, including sites like EnergyTherapy.Biz that published the 5G myth.

Health Misinformation Sites Depend on Programmatic Ads

Of the 405 sites flagged by NewsGuard’s team for publishing COVID-19 misinformation, the vast majority—over 80%—were repeat offenders, meaning they had previously been flagged for publishing health misinformation.

For example, NaturalNews.com, the flagship site of a network of hundreds of health misinformation websites, saw ads from a range of brands, including Stevia sweetener and Saucony running shoes during the pandemic.

TheGatewayPundit.com, which has published numerous falsehoods about COVID-19, saw ads from 1,021 brands during the pandemic, including The Home Depot, Macy’s, Target, Nordstrom, Hilton, Mercedes-Benz, Rite Aid, General Mills, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Brands such as Berkshire Hathaway and Vimeo advertised on DavidIcke.com, known for prominently publishing pandemic-related falsehoods, such as the false claim that the COVID-19 vaccine will change recipients’ DNA and the falsehood that it is not a vaccine at all, along with previous anti-vaccine misinformation.

GlobalResearch.ca, which promoted numerous conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, saw ads from 131 brands, including Wayfair, Unilever, Adobe, and 3M.

Addressing the Problem

The data make clear that the problem of advertising on misinformation — including COVID-19 misinformation and falsehoods specifically related to the global vaccination effort — is not limited to one brand, industry, or category of companies.

The brands funding COVID-19 misinformation spanned nearly every major category and industry. And a recent analysis showed that the same problem exists for other forms of misinformation, such as the election and voting misinformation that plagued the 2020 U.S. elections.

Most brands place ads through programmatic advertising platforms that use algorithms to determine which web pages will reach a target audience. In other words, the brands don’t know where they’re placing their ads in the first place.

Google’s advertising platforms, DV360 and DoubleClick, are among the most widely used to place ads on misinformation websites: 67% of all of the COVID-19 misinformation websites NewsGuard identified with ad placements had Google advertising tags on them, and 30% had tags from The Trade Desk, a large demand-side advertising platform.

On one hand, this means that it is unlikely that brands alone can put a stop to the problem of advertising on misinformation websites–though a commitment to that goal from brands would go a long way.

On the other hand, it means that, if advertising platforms were to provide easy tools for avoiding misinformation websites when placing ads, it would have a significant impact on the business model for such misinformation, vastly reducing the incentive for misinformation publishers to promote false claims.

Note: NewsGuard licenses access to the website credibility data used in this report for research, governmental, and commercial uses. Researchers, government regulators, advertisers, technology platforms, and other companies and interested in accessing the data underlying this report may request access here: Request Data Access.