Europe’s leading disinformation websites, including those peddling fake news about coronavirus, continue to profit from advertising placed by Google, a new report has said.
The Global Disinformation Index, an agency that rates the trustworthiness of 70,000 news websites, said that European fake news sites earn around $75m of advertising a year, much of it placed by Google.
One advertisement, for Amnesty International, was placed by Google on NewsFront, a Spanish disinformation site, next to an article claiming that the US blames “evil Russia” for the coronavirus outbreak.
Another advertisement, for the online furniture retailer Made.com, was placed by AppNexus on the Kremlin-linked news site Sputnik next to an article about the US promoting groups of Nazi collaborators in eastern Europe.
Google, together with other tech companies, signed up to a voluntary EU code of conduct in 2018 which required it to “improve the scrutiny of advertisement placements to reduce revenues of the purveyors of disinformation”.
But Clare Melford, co-founder of the GDI, said Google had been reluctant to take action against state-sponsored news sites. “It’s not so easy for Google and other platforms to make these determinations themselves,” she said. “If they stop one state-sponsored website, for example, then they would have to take down France 24 (which is owned by the French state).”
Brian O’Kelly, the co-founder and former CEO of AppNexus, said Google is “generally terrified” to take action in case it is accused of being politically biased.
“I doubt the revenue matters to them as much as this, so they effectively have an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ policy to avoid these accusations,” Mr O’Kelly said.
A Google spokesperson in Brussels criticised the report’s findings and methodology.
The person said: “This report doesn’t say what GDI defines as disinformation, nor does it provide the full list of domains sampled.
“The revenue estimates are also ill-informed and don’t accurately represent how publishers earn money on our advertising platforms.
“We have strict policies against misrepresentative content and over the past few years, we’ve invested significant resources into elevating quality content from authoritative sources.”