Top Brands Continue to Inadvertently Spend Billions on Misinformation – Digital Marketing Tips and Updates

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  • Advertisers are spending as much as $2.6 billion a year to misinformation sites, per a new report.
  • NewsGuard and Comscore calculated the spend across a sample of 7,500 websites.
  • Insider spotted brands including Home Depot and Vrbo running programmatic ads on misinformation sites.

Despite the maturation of digital advertising, major marketers still buy ads that inadvertently fund sites that propagate misinformation online.

Advertisers buying automated ads online contribute as much as $2.6 billion globally in estimated ad revenue to websites peddling misinformation every year, according to a new report from measurement firm Comscore and NewsGuard, a company that uses journalists and artificial intelligence to identify misinformation across the internet. 

NewsGuard and Comscore cross-referenced 7,500 websites that Comscore measures with a NewsGuard tool that vets the credibility of websites. They found that 1.68% of display ad spending on those sites went to publishers of misinformation — representing $2.6 billion of the $155 billion global programmatic advertising industry.

While the report does not name any specific companies, Insider spotted programmatic ads from Home Depot, TaskRabbit and Vrbo on sites NewsGuard classified as misinformation sites like One America News Network and Independent Sentinel. These ad-funded sites promote subjects ranging from false health claims and anti-vaccine myths to election misinformation.

Spokespeople from Home Depot and TaskRabbit told Insider that the ads were placed by their respective ad networks. TaskRabbit also said that it had added One America News Network to its list of sites excluded for future advertising. 

Vrbo did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The report underscores the scale at which major advertisers continue to unintentionally fund misinformation online. 

Misinformation websites use social media algorithms that prioritize engagement to amass significant audiences online, said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. These are then monetized by third-party companies called demand-side platforms that brands use to buy programmatic ads.

And while some companies have tackled how and where ads appear, the automated nature of programmatic advertising means advertisers can still wind up showing ads next to misinformation. 

“Some of these misinformation sites are foreign government-funded, but there was mystery around where the thousands of others got their funding from. The answer is indirectly from blue-chip advertisers,” said Crovitz. “Misinformation is not just a cottage industry — it’s become a significant part of the economics of the internet.” 

It’s also been hard to stop the problem because the most widely used programmatic ad platforms like Google and The Trade Desk do not break down how much ad revenue they deliver to misinformation sites versus legitimate ones, said Joshua Lowcock, US chief digital officer for Universal McCann and global brand safety officer for IPG Mediabrands. 

“It’s important to keep drawing attention to the issue, as it will force brands and DSPs to follow,” he said. A DSP is software that buys online ads. “We need Google, The Trade Desk and every DSP that has pools of programmatic inventory to share their lists of sites and clean up their supply.”

And misinformation is an increasing concern for company shareholders.  Shareholders from Omnicom and Home Depot, notably, filed resolutions recently asking the companies to investigate if their ad dollars have helped spread hate speech and misinformation. 

Ultimately, misinformation steals clicks and ad dollars from legitimate publishers, eating away at their revenue. 

In the US, $1.62 billion of the $96.89 billion in projected digital programmatic ad spend in 2021 will go to misinformation websites, according to the report from Comscore and NewsGuard. In comparison, $3.5 billion went to all US newspapers in 2020. 

So for every $2.16 in digital ad revenue sent to legitimate newspapers, $1 is going to misinformation websites, according to NewsGuard.

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