Analyst says Google and other ad networks are still funding Russian disinformation

The research demonstrates the opacity of the digital advertising ecosystem

NewsGuard has found that dozens of sites promoting Russian disinformation are still earning revenue from ads.

Despite the promise of platforms to stamp down on the funding of disinformation through advertising ecosystems, a number of avenues remain open for bad players. Analysis by news trustworthiness monitor NewsGuard has found that dozens of websites publishing disinformation about the Ukraine war continue to receive advertising revenue from Google and other advertising companies.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown the implications of online disinformation into stark focus. A deluge of disinformation has made accurate reporting of the war more valuable than ever, but that accurate information is often monetized through the same channels as the deliberate disinformation.

In order to prevent that, platforms including Google and Meta announced they would prevent Russian state-owned media from monetizing using those practices. Over the course of the past few weeks a number of other advertising networks and platforms have joined in on sanctions on Russian media.

However, the research from NewsGuard suggests that further action needs to be taken in order to prevent those networks being used for harmful purposes. NewsGuard’s team analyzed a set of 116 websites that it deemed to have been publishing disinformation about the war in Ukraine. In addition to official Russian state media sources, those sites also included anonymous websites with a history of publishing Russian disinformation narratives, foundations and research websites with uncertain funding.

The latter examples also speak to the opaque nature of digital communications, with some sites being used to push false information knowingly, and others inadvertently spreading it further.

The NewsGuard analysis found that more than two dozen of these sites promoting Russian disinformation were still displaying and earning revenue from advertisements. It found that nearly two-thirds of those sites were served by Google. It is exacerbated by the prevalence of programmatic advertising, the opaque nature of which means the advertisers whose display ads appear on these sites do not intend to support these sites, and their chief executives and chief marketing officers are likely unaware that their ads are “subsidizing Kremlin propaganda.”

Among those disinformation sites is Pravda.ru, which has been required to register as a foreign agent in the US under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Despite that, it is still able to monetize itself through legitimate advertising methods.

The report states that: “The presence of programmatic ads on sites like Pravda and the dozens of others identified by NewsGuard in the course of its analysis suggest that current provisions put in place to enforce these policies by platforms such as Google have not been effective or have not been implemented. Google did not respond to two requests for comment on whether sites like Pravda, which promote Russian disinformation narratives, violate its publisher policies.”

The report does note that some of the efforts by ad networks and platforms have made a tangible difference. Programmatic advertising no longer appears on the websites of RT or Sputnik News, which are two well-known Russian-government-funded websites that were identified in recent days by officials of the European Union. That has led to a number of Russian companies stepping in to fill that breach, with the Russian adtech company Yandex recently replacing Google on Sputnik News.

The disinformation ecosystem is widespread and extremely complex. It is exacerbated by the disincentives for platforms to get to grips with the scale of the issue, and the opacity that allows a number of malign players to insert themselves into the space. Beyond that obfuscation, however, the undifferentiated nature of digital content means that disinformation sites can monetize themselves just as well as legitimate outlets on the open market.