Nike and Amazon among brands advertising on Covid conspiracy sites – The Guardian

Nike and Amazon among brands advertising on Covid conspiracy sites – The Guardian

Dozens of the world’s biggest brands, including Nike, Amazon, Ted Baker and Asos, have been advertising on websites that spread Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, it has emerged. The companies, as well as an NHS service, are among a string of household names whose ads appear to have helped fund websites that host false and outlandish claims, for example that powerful people secretly engineered the pandemic, or that vaccines have caused thousands of deaths.

Analysis of nearly 60 sites, performed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and shared with the Observer, found that ads were placed through the “opaque” digital advertising market, which is forecast to be worth more than $455bn (£387bn) this year.

Digital advertising is delivered through a complex networks of tech companies, including Google, that match online data about people with available advertising space and then sell access to web users as they browse.

Experts said the design of this digital advertising architecture means that major brands, and their customers, may have been unwittingly funding Covid-19 misinformation.

Dr Augustine Fou, an independent ad fraud researcher and former employee of advertising agency Omnicom, said the system of bidding on ads means these sites get mixed in with other, more benign ones.

“Because they now have a source of funding, they can not only survive but also proliferate,” he said. “And that’s why we’re seeing this huge problem. Because of the lack of transparency … the companies and organisations buying the ads could be unaware that their marketing is appearing on – and potentially funding – these sources of misinformation.

Ads for Amazon services were found on more than 30 sites that carried fake news ranging from Covid conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates to claims that mRNA vaccines are “toxic”.

An NHS diabetes website was promoted alongside articles by a well-known anti-vaccine activist and the false claim that you cannot catch a virus.

“We know the ad ecosystem is incredibly opaque,” says Raegan MacDonald from Mozilla, which makes the Firefox internet browser. “It’s almost like we’re not supposed to look under the hood. Because if you do, you find this mess.”

Ads for Nike, Honda, US pharmacy chain Walgreens and eBay were among those recorded on misinformation-spreading sites Photograph: Acorn 1/Alamy

MacDonald warns that the system is being “weaponised” and potentially putting public health at risk. “What I really hope is that this will be a sort of last straw for the brands,” she said.

The bureau examined sites that host misinformation and also carry ads, using a combination of manual checking by researchers in the US and UK and automated systems that “crawl” sites to record what happens when someone visits them.

The pages were identified with help from the Global Disinformation Index, with ad analysis provided by Rocky Moss, the co-founder and chief executive of ad quality platform, and Braedon Vickers, who has …….


Advertise online