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Over 1,000 brands placed ads alongside misinformation about elections

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A new report from NewsGuard, a service that uses trained journalists to evaluate news and intelligence sites, found that from October 1 to January 12, almost every major brand in America inadvertently ran automated ads on websites that advertised election conspiracies and Spread misinformation.

Why it matters: The chaotic nature of the modern news cycle and digital advertising landscape has made it nearly impossible for brands to automatically run ads for high quality content without encountering bad content.

Details: According to the report, 1,668 brands ran 8,776 individual ads on the 160 websites flagged in the NewsGuard Election Tracking Misinformation Center to post falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the election.

  • Large companies like American Express, nonprofits like Planned Parenthood, and prominent universities like Harvard and Stanford are just a few examples of companies that NewsGuard has advertised on problematic websites.
  • In one example, NewsGuard found that Disney, a brand that prides itself on being apolitical and family-friendly, had ads on CharlieKirk.com, a website that repeatedly made false claims about the election.

Between the lines: The report finds that advertisers also mistakenly advertise websites that repeatedly post conspiracies and misinformation.

  • For example, the report found that Gateway Pundit, a far-right outlet known for posting hoaxes, had served ads from 226 brands in the past three months.

The big picture: Most advertisers do not intentionally display their ads on these types of websites, but the digital advertising ecosystem can sometimes make it difficult to avoid such content entirely.

  • Most advertisers or their agencies use programmatic or automated technologies to serve ads on various websites.
  • Programmatic advertising enables marketers to purchase targeted ads on thousands of different websites at very efficient costs.
  • But because programmatic advertising is bought and sold through a highly tangled supply chain, there is also a lot of fraud and accidentally misplaced ads.

Be clever: Brands are trying to forestall the problem but blacklists or lists of words or websites to avoid when buying ads. But blacklists that aren’t foolproof often inadvertently block high quality news sites from generating advertising revenue.

The bottom line: The pandemic, combined with the US election drama, has resulted in consumers trusting brands vis-à-vis government agencies or nonprofits.

  • The NewsGuard data poses a serious problem for brands that are expected to lead the country in solving important problems including fake news and misinformation on the Internet.
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