Large internet platforms might declare a commitment to prevent the spread of fake news, but in practice many of them rake in large amounts of money in advertising revenue from such sites, according to a study by Israeli company Adverifai, which specializes in spotting disinformation online.
According to the study, Google leads the pack and is responsible for most ads appearing on sites promoting coronavirus denial and other lies.
The study found that Google Ads and Google's DoubleClick internet advertising company were responsible for 69% of the ads that appeared on fake news sites during January and February of this year, followed by the Revcontent platform with 7%, OpenX with 4% and Israel's Taboola with 2%.
Google said in response that the company has a strict policy of blocking dangerous and misleading content about the coronavirus.
"We remove such content and block these sites' ability to create revenue. Our enforcement can extend all the way to a single page with such content that violates our policy," Google said.
Taboola CEO Adam Singolda said his company does not support fake news (Disclaimer: Ynetnews uses the Taboola platform).
"We are one of the world's leading companies for content moderation, with a team that works manually according to our public policy. We also work with other companies that assist us in our efforts," he said.
Adverifai CEO Or Levi told Ynet his company has scanned thousands of sites that promote misinformation.
"We found many of them shared platforms with companies like Google, who we estimate generate $100,000,000 in revenue each year. Some of the largest advertisers actually finance these sites, although they may be doing so unknowingly due to lack of transparency from advertising platforms.
The study by Adverifai, which specializes in using AI technology to identify fake news, found that 2,500 companies had promoted their products with platforms that placed their ads on fake new sites.
These companies, Adverifai said, included Bentley Motors, AsusTek Computer Inc. and T-Mobile.
The study did not cover ads placed by Facebook due to the difficulty in obtaining the data. But according to Levi, Adverifai is planning further research that will focus on that social media giant.
"You see many Facebook ads on coronavirus denial websites and although we have many such examples, we cannot at this point say whether we are seeing a method in action or just a random coincidence," Levi said.
Advertising platforms are the mediators between advertisers and content websites around the world. These platforms place ads on various websites and share revenue with the site owners. In fact, fake news sites finance their activity through ad revenue, which often makes them very profitable.
Adverifai can identify fake news using AI technology that monitors hundreds of thousands of texts and locates key words prevalent in such items. It also tracks manipulative language through the use of semantic and psycholinguistic models.
The company identifies the most common false narratives being promoted online. This includes claims about alleged dangers of the coronavirus vaccine, conspiracy theories on the source of the virus, Bill Gates' purported connections to the vaccines, accusations against big pharmaceutical companies and governments and the promotion of products to "cure" COVID-19.
The American Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said in October 2020 that it estimated anti-vaxxers had made a total of one billion dollars last year, mostly by posting on Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary. These groups also increased their followers by 20% and now reach about 40,000,000 people in all.
Fake news has been found to cause serious damage to health and the economy; studies have shown that the refusal to wear masks during the pandemic has led to increased deaths and placed a greater financial burden on healthcare systems.
Facebook, Google and Twitter all say they are committed to fighting fake news, by blocking some publications and preventing the promotion of others.
In February, the Biden administration began promoting a joint initiative with the social media companies to fight fake news.
But this latest study shows that while the big tech companies prevent such content from appearing on their own platforms, they still enable and finance sites that do propagate it.