Russia is deploying a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, a leaked EU document revealed Wednesday.
And researchers say Google advertising is paying them millions to do it.
New research by the Global Disinformation Network has revealed that 1,400 fake news websites spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories across Europe have been funded to the tune of $76 million by ad tech companies — with more than 60% of the revenue coming from Google alone.
Many of those websites are linked to the Kremlin or directly funded by the Russian government.
Ads for many well-known brands, like Amazon Prime, Burger King, Mercedes Benz, Samsung, Spotify, and Volvo, have been shown to readers next to stories including the amplification of the conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.
Companies like Google, Criteo and Taboola allow brands to automate the way their ads appear online, promising to place and target the ads based on a user’s previous online activity.
According to EUvsDisinfo, a group that monitors Russian disinformation, there have been almost 80 examples of coronavirus-related fake news in recent weeks.
One example highlighted in the GDI report comes from NewsFront, a pro-Kremlin disinformation site operating out from illegally annexed Crimea, that publishes fake news in eight languages.
A recent story published in its Spanish-language edition claimed that the U.S. was blaming Russia for the coronavirus outbreak. Next to the story was an ad for Amnesty International placed by Google’s Ad Services platform.
The researchers say their results show that Google is not adhering to the spirit of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, a self-regulatory commitment the company signed up to, in order to stop disinformation-focused websites from generating revenue off the back of fake news.
“Brands are being let down by ad tech companies. These companies are not making sufficient efforts to ensure they are not funding disinformation in the EU and beyond,” Clare Melford, executive director of the GDI, said in a statement.
Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the report’s findings
The research also found that Kremlin-backed outlets like RT and Sputnik were among those spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories and the leaked EU report appears to back up that assertion.
According to a nine-page internal EU document seen by Reuters, “a significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing.,”
“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the report said.
Cover: File photo dated 03/01/20 of a person holding an iphone showing the app for Google chrome search engine. PHOTO: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire URN:50186249 (Press Association via AP Images)