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Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its programmatic ads are funding them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its programmatic ads are funding them

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

The note was a clear bait-and-switch on a story that boldly pushed a false conspiracy theory about the election. But just as striking as the editor's note is what sits at the top of this story, and every story on Kirk's site: a Google ad.

Since the 2016 election, endless attention has been paid to the way election misinformation can spread through targeted ads on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. But an equally insidious and less-discussed problem is how programmatic advertising, a field dominated by Google, has become the lifeblood of misinformation sites. With or without social platforms, these ads allow misinformation sites to exist and even thrive all on their own by providing a source of revenue, and companies like Google have a shoddy record of policing them.

In a new report released Thursday by the news rating company NewsGuard, researchers found ads for more than 1,600 mainstream brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, running on 160 sites (including Kirk's) that have openly pushed election conspiracies. Google was responsible for ads on a whopping 80 percent of those sites. Another ad exchange, The Trade Desk, was running ads on roughly half.

Among the examples NewsGuard lists: ads for Harvard University appearing on One America News Network's website, ads for AARP appearing on sites like The Gateway Pundit and ZeroHedge, and Walmart ads appearing on NOQ Report, a site that recently argued Satan uses Democrats to do his bidding, including stealing the election.

In some cases, the ads create discordant messaging between publisher and advertiser. While reporting this story, Protocol found ads for Planned Parenthood on Kirk's site, despite Kirk's frequent calls for Planned Parenthood to be defunded. Thanks to these ads, Planned Parenthood is effectively funding Kirk.

A Planned Parenthood fundraising ad appears on a story containing election misinformation at the top of Charlie Kirk's website.Screenshot: Protocol


Google has policies forbidding publishers who post demonstrably false election misinformation and other types of content from placing Google ads on their websites. "Claims that voter fraud was widespread or that the election was stolen are all prohibited by our policies. When we find content that violates our policies we remove its ability to monetize," a Google spokesperson said.

The company demonetizes individual stories first, reserving site-wide demonetization for egregious, persistent offenders (The company recently demonetized a far-right militia site following the Capitol riot). In 2019, the company removed ads from 21 million individual pages, the Google spokesperson said. The problem: Google serves billions of ads every day.

It's not that the company is unaware it's serving ads on the sites NewsGuard noted in its report. In August, a group of philanthropists wrote to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai after reports showed that ads for groups like the Red Cross and Save the Children were appearing alongside COVID-19 misinformation on TheGatewayPundit and elsewhere. The philanthropists urged Google to institute a new model that "does not put [advertisers] into unwanted and damaging associations that undermine their good works and values."

Since then, the company has taken action on individual Gateway Pundit articles, but five months later, Google has yet to fully demonetize the site despite repeated violations, enabling it to continue growing and spreading misinformation.

The power programmatic advertising has in sustaining these sites is particularly relevant now as social media giants begin to more forcefully crack down on accounts, including the president's, that regularly post dangerous conspiracy theories or incitements to violence. For many of these companies, last week's riot in the U.S. Capitol was a wake-up call, showing them the disastrous real-world consequences of allowing people to believe lies about the election being stolen. But chasing the accounts that peddle those lies off of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is only part of the solution. As long as the people behind those accounts have a way to make money on their falsehoods, why would they ever stop?

Big Tech benefits from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter, a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, made a name for herself last year when she famously breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.

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Here are the nominees who are most likely to wield power over the tech industry.

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tech billionaires and the people who work for them overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden's election in November. Now, as he takes the oath of office and becomes the 46th president of the United States, the real work begins.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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Expensify CEO: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

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Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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