An investigation found the tech giant’s ad business generates revenues from websites spreading disinformation in Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Google is making disinformation profitable via its ad practices for some of the internet’s most prolific purveyors of false information in Europe, Latin America and Africa, an investigation has found.
The first-ever analysis conducted on this scale, the ProPublica investigation revealed that Google’s sprawling automated digital advertising operation placed ads from major brands on global websites that spread false claims on topics like Covid-19, vaccines, climate crises and elections.
The ProPublica probe also revealed that Google routinely places ads on sites peddling falsehoods about Covid-19 and climate crises in French, German and Spanish-speaking countries.
“The resulting ad revenue is potentially worth millions of dollars to the people and groups running these and other unreliable sites – while also making money for Google,” the report said.
Ads from Google are more likely to appear on misleading articles and websites that are in languages other than English, and “Google profits from advertising that appears next to false stories on subjects not explicitly addressed in its policy, including crime, politics, and such conspiracy theories as chemtrails,” the report added.
In one example, Google continued to place ads on a Bosnia and Herzegovina-based publication for months following the US government imposing sanctions on the site and described as the “personal media station” of a prominent Bosnian Serb separatist politician.
Google ads are also a source of revenue for sites that spread election disinformation in Brazil, particularly false claims about voting integrity advanced by its former president Jair Bolsonaro.
According to the report, a former Google leader who worked on trust and safety issues acknowledged the tech giant focuses most of its energy on English-language enforcement, and as a result, is weaker across other language segments and smaller markets.
This is because, according to the former leader, Google invests in oversight based on three primary concerns.
“The number one is bad PR – they are very sensitive to that. The second one is trying to avoid regulatory scrutiny or potential regulatory action that could impact their business. And number three is revenue,” they said.
“For all these three, English-speaking markets primarily have the biggest impact. And that’s why most of the efforts are going into those.”
For the investigation, ProPublica used data provided by fact-checkers, researchers and website monitoring organisations to scan over 13,000 active article pages from thousands of websites in more than half a dozen languages. This was done to determine whether they were currently earning ad revenue with Google.
The analysis found that Google placed ads on 41 percent of around 800 active online articles, rated by members of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network as publishing false claims about Covid-19.
“The company also served ads on 20 percent of articles about climate change that Science Feedback, an IFCN-accredited fact-checking organisation, has rated false,” the report noted.
In 2018, Google announced a $300 million commitment to fight misinformation and support fact-checkers to “help journalism thrive in the digital age.”
But the ProPublica investigation has shown that while “one arm of Google helps support fact-checkers, its core ad business provides critical revenue that ensures the publication of falsehoods remains profitable.”
Google spokesperson Michael Aciman said the company has put more money into non-English-language enforcement and oversight, which has led to an increased number of ads blocked on pages that violate its rules.
“We’ve developed extensive measures to tackle misinformation on our platform, including policies that cover elections, Covid-19 and climate change, and work to enforce our policies in over 50 languages,” Aciman said.
“In 2021, we removed ads from more than 1.7 billion publisher pages and 63,000 sites globally. We know that our work is not done, and we will continue to invest in our enforcement systems to better detect unreliable claims and protect users around the world.”