New research shows how Google and Meta get rich off content even they deem as harmful

New research shows how Google and Meta get rich off content even they deem as harmful

As thousands of advertisers descend on New York City for the annual Advertising Week, several research and advocacy groups published reports highlighting Big Tech’s toxic adtech model which is funding disinformation and fringe far-right conspiracy theory groups — while also profiting off content even the platforms consider harmful. 

New research from Dewey Digital, in partnership with Friends of the Earth and the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition reveals how Google is monetizing climate disinformation despite announcing last year that it will stop placing ads on climate denial content.  

Researchers studied advertisements across the top 113 websites that publish climate disinformation and found that nearly 80% of these sites displayed advertising from one or more major ad networks, including Google, Amazon and Yahoo. Of the 50 top sites in estimated weekly traffic, 39 of them (78%) were displaying ads from the Google Display network. If advertisers bought ads on these climate disinformation sites at an industry median price cost-per-click, then Google would potentially have pulled in $7.67 million in display advertising revenue over the past year from these sites.

What this research shows is that despite Google making promises to stop funding and profiting off climate denial, the tech company is failing to get a grip on the proliferation of climate disinformation in its adtech network. 

Furthermore since Google’s policy is to allow websites to remain anonymous, advertisers are unknowingly funding and placing ads on websites spreading falsehoods that go against their company values. Watchdog group Check My Ads has exposed how Google’s adtech model has turned into a massive dark money operation, noting that since Google lets publishers monetize anonymously, 9 out 10 sellers on Google Ads are now untraceable. The group’s report goes on to note that as a result of Google’s practices, “advertisers can’t meet the standards they’ve set for themselves, putting them at near constant business and legal risk” which in turns fuels revenue to websites and bad actors who traffic disinformation. 

With advertisers at the center of the disinformation discussion this week, campaigning group SumOfUs set up a game of Plinko outside of the Adweek venue in NYC – asking advertisers to guess where their ad money is going. Spoiler alert: the advertisers are unknowingly funding disinformation and conspiracy theory websites. The key ask from advertisers at the event was to urge Google to stop monetizing disinformation and to make website data transparent so advertisers aren’t forced to operate in the dark about where their ad budgets are landing. 

A new report from the Global Disinformation Index outlines how Google and Amazon, two major sponsors of Ad Week in New York, have been monetizing the disinformation economy through their ad tech. GDI's report shows countless examples of ads being served alongside various types of disinformation that violates the terms of service for both platforms. 

In addition to a sharp focus on Google this week, groups have also highlighted Meta’s problematic adtech model. A recent report from the Tech Transparency Project illustrates how white supremacists continue to have a home on Facebook and how the platform is generating revenue off of them from advertisements. TTP found that more than 80 white supremacist groups have a presence on Facebook, including some that Facebook itself has labelled as “dangerous organizations.” The group’s report also exposes how search results for white supremacist groups were often monetized with ads. 

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has also published a report showing in part how social media platforms are monetizing disinformation around abortion rights and access. The study found that ads containing or leading to misinformation about abortion gained almost 29 million impressions across Instagram and Facebook between November 1, 2021 and June 24 this year. Over the same timeframe, Meta made approximately $624,400 on ads from “pro-life” pages that contained misinformation.

Last but not least, a new report from Media Matters for America finds that Google’s ad network is driving and monetizing traffic to the fringe video-sharing platform Rumble. Despite its extreme user base, a Dewey Square analysis of data from traffic analytics company Similarweb found that Rumble has had 622 million visits in the last year (from October 2021 through September 2022), which is roughly 52 million monthly visits on average. The analysis also found that Google’s ad network is helping to drive traffic to the fringe platform, including new users, and even monetizing those visits. In fact, nearly 48% of U.S. display ad traffic driving users to Rumble came from Google Display Network ads.