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Do-Gooders Doing Bad: How Nonprofit and Government Organizations Unintentionally Fund the Misinformation Machine

NewsGuard identified 57 nonprofit and government organizations advertising on websites that traffic in misinformation, having failed to exclude them from their programmatic advertising

A special report for the European Commission. See past reports to other agencies.

By Jack Brewster and Macrina Wang | Published on May 12, 2023

Dozens of nonprofit and government organizations are supporting websites that traffic in misinformation — including some that directly contradict the stated missions of those organizations — by running advertising on those sites, a NewsGuard analysis found.

In April and May 2023, NewsGuard analysts identified 108 programmatic ads from 57 nonprofit and government organizations that appeared on 50 websites that have been found by NewsGuard to spread misinformation. Some of these ads were placed adjacent to articles containing false or misleading content, while others were displayed elsewhere on the sites, including on the homepage. These ads were served up to NewsGuard analysts browsing the internet in nine countries: the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Programmatic advertising serves hyper-targeted digital ads to online readers. Through algorithms and high-tech auction processes, digital-advertising platforms such as Google and The Trade Desk promise to target demographic groups at the lowest available cost. Advertising agencies buy the ads and they automatically appear on the platforms. 

Because this process is so opaque, many — if not all — of the organizations named in this report likely had no idea that they are helping to fund sites that have spread misinformation, since the ads are purchased through a third party, the ad agency

Among NewsGuard’s key findings:

  • Nonprofit groups responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, including those that aid refugees, are helping to fund sites that have advanced Russian disinformation about the war, including the claim that reports about Russian atrocities are hoaxes.
  • Multiple health organizations and U.S. colleges and universities are advertising on sites trafficking in blatant and at times dangerous health misinformation, including false claims about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines and bogus health remedies.
  • More than 70% of the nonprofit and government ads NewsGuard identified — 81 of 108 — were served to NewsGuard by Google, the largest online ad platform, which generated $168 billion in revenue last year from online advertising alone.

As noted above, some of the sites where the ads appeared advance misinformation that directly contradicts the mission of the nonprofit or government organization that advertised on them. 

For example, NewsGuard found ads for Planned Parenthood on an article published by This is a website focused on natural remedies found by NewsGuard to have advanced false and unsubstantiated health claims. The ad appeared next to an article that promoted dangerous herbal abortion recipes. The article, titled “Planned Parenthood – The Natural Way,” suggested that women who wanted to “give themselves the natural version of the morning-after pill and/or induce miscarriage later on in the first trimester” could do so by taking a list of 23 herbs and supplements, including mugwort and a high dose of Vitamin C. 

Medical experts strongly advocate against women seeking herbal remedies to induce an abortion, and Planned Parenthood itself explicitly discourages women from doing so. Nonetheless, the ad for Planned Parenthood appeared directly above a list of herbs that ReturnToNow recommended for inducing an abortion. 

NewsGuard was also served an ad for Girl Scouts of the USA on the same article.

[TOP] Ads for Girl Scouts of America appeared on an article promoting herbal abortion recipes. Medical experts strongly discourage women from seeking out herbal remedies to induce an abortion. (Screenshots via NewsGuard)
[BOTTOM] Ads for Planned Parenthood appeared on an article promoting herbal abortion recipes. Medical experts strongly discourage women from seeking out herbal remedies to induce an abortion. (Screenshots via NewsGuard)

It is difficult to estimate how much money nonprofits and government organizations are directing toward misinformation sites through programmatic advertising. An estimate would depend on a variety of factors, such as the number of clicks on the ads, the ad placements, ad pricing, and site traffic. Some of the ads identified by NewsGuard were placed by the Ad Council — a nonprofit organization that produces public service announcements on behalf of government agencies and well-established nonprofits, and places them on websites — though it is often challenging to identify an Ad Council campaign. Websites regularly donate space to the Ad Council, providing these sites with a measure of credibility they would not otherwise have. According to an August 2021 report by Comscore and NewsGuard, misinformation sites — including those peddling Russian disinformation, health-care hoaxes, and false claims about elections — earn $2.6 billion annually from big brands through programmatic advertising. 


Humanitarian and Relief Organizations: The Top Do-Gooders/Bad Advertisers

Nearly half of the ads (47) that NewsGuard identified were for humanitarian and relief organizations, many of which are assisting refugees and citizens in war-torn Ukraine, even as they may be indirectly funding the Russia-Ukraine war misinformation machine. Ads for five organizations responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war appeared on 10 websites found by NewsGuard to have spread Russian misinformation or disinformation about the war. 

This included an ad for the American Red Cross on the English-language version of, (“Pravda” means “truth” in Russian), a site that has advanced Russian disinformation and is operated by Vadim Gorshenin, a self-described supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. began in 1912 as the official printed newspaper of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, Pravda was required to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

An ad for the American Red Cross appears on the English-language version of, a site that has advanced Russian disinformation. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

NewsGuard was also served ads for the Red Cross on four other sites found to have repeatedly published misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war:, an anonymously run Italian political site;, an anonymously run international and general news blog that appears to be owned by a Delhi, India-based company called Sporty Solutionz;, an anonymously owned French news site; and, the website of Italian blogger Raffaele Palermo, a Rome-based YouTuber who began streaming conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine content during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

In addition, NewsGuard found Amnesty International ads on seven websites that have advanced false claims about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Amnesty International is a human rights organization based in the U.K. that is working to document evidence of human rights violations and war crimes committed against Ukrainian citizens by the Russian military.

One of the seven Amnesty International ads — which was displayed to a NewsGuard analyst in Italy — appeared on, a video site that has repeatedly published pro-Russia propaganda about the Russia-Ukraine war. An ad for Doctors Without Borders, an international organization founded in France that provides medical assistance to people affected by conflict, including the Russia-Ukraine war, appeared on (“Contro Informazione” means “counter information”), an Italian news site that has published false claims and conspiracy theories, including about the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.

In March 2022, Google updated its Publisher Policies to state that any site that “exploits, dismisses, or condones” the Russia-Ukraine War will be barred from using the company’s ad technology. Nonetheless, NewsGuard found 20 nonprofit and government organizations advertising on 13 websites that have spread misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war using Google ad technology.

NewsGuard sent three emails to Google requesting comment about its monetization of sites advancing misinformation. Upon receiving the request, a Google spokesperson requested that NewsGuard provide additional context over email, which NewsGuard obliged. However, as of May. 11, 2023, NewsGuard had yet to receive a response.

To Educate and (Mis)inform: The Schools Advertising on Sites Spreading Misinformation

NewsGuard identified advertisements for 17 colleges and educational institutions on sites trafficking in misinformation. For example, ads for Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian liberal arts school located in Hillsdale, Michigan, appeared on five sites that have spread misinformation, the most of any educational institution.

One ad for Hillsdale appeared on an article published by, an anonymously owned site that claimed former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “died at 9:05 pm on Dec. 31 2018” at the U.S. base in Guantánamo Bay. Then-President Donald “Trump witnessed the execution,” the article added.

An ad for Hillsdale College appeared on a article that falsely claimed former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was executed in 2018. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Ads for Purdue University and Franklin University appeared on a March 2020 article published by self-described “natural health” website that claimed an “alkaline diet” of non-acidic fruits and vegetables can change the body’s pH level and lower the risk of developing serious health issues. (According to multiple medical and scientific authorities, an alkaline diet does not affect the body’s pH levels, and it is not effective in treating diseases). NewsGuard has found that has promoted other false and misleading claims about “natural” health remedies, including unproven cures for cancer.

American universities are also funding misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war: Ads for Elon University, Moreland University, and Suffolk University appeared on the previously mentioned, which has repeatedly published false information about the Russia-Ukraine war, including multiple articles that called the massacre of citizens in the Ukrainian city of Bucha a hoax. 


Irony Abounds in the Programmatic Advertising World

As in the cases of the Planned Parenthood and Hillsdale College ads, NewsGuard found dozens of examples of nonprofit and government organizations advertising not just on the sites that advance these claims, but also alongside the very articles containing the misinformation. In many cases, these organizations’ advertisements were displayed on articles that promoted misinformation that contradicted their own mission, as in the case of Planned Parenthood advertising an article advancing dangerous abortion misinformation.

For example, ads for health organizations appeared on articles with medical misinformation. NewsGuard was shown an ad for the Alzheimer’s Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to end Alzheimer’s disease, on a May 2022 article by that advanced the unsubstantiated claim that fluoride is “associated with an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s.” 

An ad for the City of New Haven’s vaccination program appeared on an August 2022 article by that advanced the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines contain toxic spike proteins. And an ad for the New York Academy of Sciences, the fourth-oldest scientific society in the U.S. whose mission statement reads, “Science for the Public Good,” appeared on a article promoting the baseless claim that green tea can “kill cancer stem cells.” The New York Academy of Sciences’ ad was a promotion for a three-day cancer research event.

NewsGuard sent emails to the 14 nonprofit and government organizations mentioned in this report, asking if they were aware that their ads were appearing on sites trafficking in misinformation. Five responded: Doctors Without Borders, Hillsdale College, the Red Cross, Elon University, and Franklin University.

Doctors Without Borders and Franklin University both told NewsGuard that they would add the misinformation sites identified by NewsGuard to their “exclusion lists,” referring to sites to which they do not send their programmatic ads. Hillsdale College said it would “review [the] matter internally,” while Elon University said they were not interested in commenting publicly about the report. The Red Cross said a screenshot of one of the Red Cross ads on shared by NewsGuard did not look like an ad they had purchased through their media agency. NewsGuard sent a follow-up email on May 10, 2023, asking the Red Cross who purchased the ad if it was not them. Hannah Copeland, international media manager for the British Red Cross, replied, “No – all we know is that it wasn’t us.”

NewsGuard has included the full responses from Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Franklin University, and Hillsdale College here.


In April and May 2023, NewsGuard analysts based in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Italy examined 50 websites that display programmatic advertising and fail NewsGuard’s standards for gathering and presenting news responsibly or for not repeatedly publishing false information (46 of the 50 sites failed both criteria). All of the sites received a NewsGuard Trust Score below 60/100.

NewsGuard employs a team of journalists to review and rate news and information websites using nine basic, apolitical criteria of journalistic practice. Based on a site’s performance on these nine weighted criteria, the site is assigned a score of zero to 100 points. To identify the various nonprofit and government organizations present on these websites, the analysts used different browsers, private browsing mode, and Virtual Private Networks (VPN), a tool that enables users to browse the internet as if they were in another country. Analysts took screenshots of their findings.

Note: NewsGuard licenses its ratings of 30,000 sources of news and information, including more than 8,500 websites, to help brands avoid unintentionally placing programmatic advertisements on misinformation websites. NewsGuard’s exclusion lists are used by advertisers, ad agencies and ad-tech companies to exclude websites from advertising support, and NewsGuard’s inclusion lists are used instead to place ads on generally trustworthy sites, supporting quality journalism.

Additional reporting by Sara Badilini, Zack Fishman, Virginia Padovese, Leonie Pfaller, Giulia Pozzi, Roberta Schmid, and Louise Vallée