By Matt Skibinski, General Manager, NewsGuard | Published on July 11, 2022
As congressional hearings in Congress bring new revelations about the events that led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, business is still booming for the misinformation websites that spread false claims about election fraud in the 2020 election, according to a new analysis of ad placements on websites flagged for publishing election misinformation.
NewsGuard reported last year that in the period leading up to January 6, 2021, more than 1,600 top brands placed thousands of ads on 166 websites flagged in NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracking Center for publishing falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the election—supporting those sites with ad dollars, helping to fund their publication of misinformation.
Since then, key players in the programmatic advertising industry have announced steps aimed at curbing advertisers’ support of misinformation publishers—including Google, which announced limitations on political ads and dropped several high-profile publishers from its advertising platform. Other ad platforms, agencies, and brands announced similar efforts.
But in a new analysis, NewsGuard has found that thousands of brands continue to place ads on known election misinformation websites.
The analysis, which used data from Moat Pro to analyze ad placements on the same 166 websites used in NewsGuard’s previous report, found that 1,975 brands have advertised on these websites over the past year—many more than did in the run-up to Jan. 6—despite the sites having been flagged previously for publishing election misinformation.
Advertising on Misinformation is An Industry-Wide Problem
Brands advertising on the election misinformation sites span nearly every industry and business sector.
Top brands such as Pottery Barn, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Kohls, are placing ads on websites like TheFederalist.com, which has published numerous false claims about the election. For example, in November of 2020, as results were being counted, the site published an article titled, “Yes, Democrats Are Trying To Steal The Election In Michigan, Wisconsin, And Pennsylvania,” which contained numerous false claims of fraudulent overnight “vote dumps” of Biden-only votes.
Today, the site continues to publish similar claims: The lead article on June 23, 2022, was entitled, “Yes, Biden Is Hiding His Plan to Rig The 2022 Midterm Elections.” All told, 260 different brands advertised on this site in the past year, including Honda, UPS, and Mastercard.
Likewise, top brands such as Nestle, Kia, and AT&T have continued to place ads on sites like ZeroHedge.com, a leading promoter of election misinformation.
On November 7, 2020, as the election results were still being tallied, Zero Hedge published an article titled, “In 30 States, A Computer System Known To Be Defective Is Tallying Votes.” The article falsely claimed that Dominion Voting Systems, a company whose machines and software were used in the election, had switched thousands of votes from Trump to Biden in Michigan — suggesting that the software’s use in other states was leading to widespread issues.
Harvard, March of Dimes, and Other Non-Profits Send these Sites Ad Dollars
The brands advertising on election misinformation sites include nonprofits, educational institutions, and other brands that position themselves as serving the public interest—including March of Dimes, which advertised on 10 election misinformation sites and the Alzheimer’s Association, which advertised on nine of the sites.
Harvard University and the University of Arizona are also on the list of brands that advertised on election misinformation sites, as was Kumon, which operates educational learning centers across the country.
The ostensibly socially conscious shoe company AllBirds advertised on four of the election misinformation sites, including The Federalist.
The VA and the CDC Also Chip In with Ads
Government agencies and departments are also advertising on the election misinformation sites. For example, HealthCare.gov advertised on nine of the election misinformation sites. The Department of Veterans Affairs advertised on six of the sites, as did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How Brands Can Avoid Funding the Next Insurrection
It is highly likely that in all or most of the cases found in NewsGuard’s analysis, the brands in question did not intend for their ads to appear on websites publishing election misinformation narratives.
Brands are at the risk of programmatic advertising, which refers to ads that are placed by algorithm, with massive ad exchanges and ad-tech companies facilitating real-time bidding that matches brands’ ads with the types of users they want to reach, regardless of the nature of the websites where the ad would reach them.
For example, a brand that sells athletic gear may want to reach users with an interest in running or weightlifting, or within a certain age range or geography. Advertising platforms use algorithms and numerous data sources to identify users that seem to match the intended customer profile for each advertiser, and then seek to serve ads to those users on websites they visit. As a result, brands typically do not know which websites their ads were placed on until after the fact — if ever.
The result is that publishers whose content might directly contradict a brand’s values or stated policies are often inadvertently funded by the brand’s ads.
While the programmatic advertising system as a whole is designed to separate the brand from the publisher on which its ads are being placed, it is possible for brands to control where their ads are being placed in order to protect their brand safety and avoid funding misinformation.
Brands, or ad agencies on behalf of brands, can implement exclusion lists to avoid ad placements on certain websites—or curate a target list of specific websites where the brand would like its ads to run. While many brands have versions of these measures in place, the analysis in this report suggests that current measures have not been sufficient to protect brands from funding election misinformation.
But the analysis also suggests that much of brands’ risk from misinformation comes from “repeat offenders” — that is, websites flagged in the past for publishing misinformation that continue to do so. By avoiding ad placements on such sites, or by targeting ad placements only to sites known to publish responsible journalism, brands may find greater success at avoiding risk from misinformation.