Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorIssie LapowskyNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
Protocol | Policy

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?

Protocol | Workplace

Alabama Amazon workers will likely get a second union vote

An NLRB judge said that Amazon "usurped" the NLRB by pushing for a mailbox to be installed in front of its facility, and also that the company violated laws that protect workers from monitoring of their behavior during union elections.

An NLRB judge ruled that Amazon has violated union election rules

Image: Amazon

Bessemer, Alabama warehouse workers will likely get a second union vote because of Amazon's efforts to have a USPS ballot box installed just outside of the Bessemer warehouse facility during the mail-in vote, as well as other violations of union vote rules, according to an NLRB ruling published Tuesday morning.

While union organizers, represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, lost the first vote by more than a 2:1 margin, a second election will be scheduled and held unless Amazon successfully appeals the ruling. Though Amazon is the country's second-largest private employer, no unionization effort at the company has ever been successful.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

What comes to mind when you think of AI? In the past, it might have been the Turing test, a sci-fi character or IBM's Deep Blue-defeating chess champion Garry Kasparov. Today, instead of copying human intelligence, we're seeing immense progress made in using AI to unobtrusively simplify and enrich our own intelligence and experiences. Natural language processing, modern encrypted security solutions, advanced perception and imaging capabilities, next-generation data management and logistics, and automotive assistance are some of the many ways AI is quietly yet unmistakably driving some of the latest advancements inside our phones, PCs, cars and other crucial 21st century devices. And the combination of 5G and AI is enabling a world with distributed intelligence where AI processing is happening on devices and in the cloud.

Keep Reading Show less
Alex Katouzian
Alex Katouzian currently serves as senior vice president and general manager of the Mobile, Compute and Infrastructure (MCI) Business Unit at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. In this role, Katouzian is responsible for the profit, loss and strategy of the MCI BU, which includes business lines for Mobile Handset Products and Application Processor Technologies, 4G and 5G Mobile Broadband for embedded applications, Small and Macro Cells, Modem Technologies, Compute products across multiple OS’, eXtended Reality and AI Edge Cloud products.
Protocol | Fintech

Hippo’s plan to reinvent insurance: Fix homes before they break

Hippo, which is going public via a SPAC Tuesday, is using tech to prevent claims from happening.

Hippo CEO Assaf Wand wants to catch homeowners' losses before they happen.

Photo: Hippo

Home insurance, a $108 billion legacy industry that depends on troves of data, is a natural area for fintech companies to target.

That change is starting to happen — and one company is getting fresh capital to tackle the opportunity. Hippo, led by co-founder and CEO Assaf Wand, is going public today through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company Reinvest Technology Partners Z. The SPAC is run by LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Policy

Weak competition could hike your broadband bill by $96 a year

A new consumer survey says that those with the most choice in broadband providers are paying the least and reveals opinions about municipal broadband, internet access, affordability and more.

Broadband affordability has become an urgent issue during the pandemic.

Photo: John Schnobrich/Unsplash

American homes that have lots of choice in broadband providers can expect to pay around $8 less per month for internet than those who are locked into a single company, according to a new survey from Consumer Reports.

The median monthly bill for people with four or more broadband providers in their area was $67. It was $75 for those with only one choice, according to the survey of nearly 2,600 US residents. In a sign that consumers are thirsty for increased broadband access, the survey also suggested wide approval for municipal broadband programs run by local governments.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Enterprise

Partners and "co-opetition": Inside the new enterprise cold war

There's a rush of new partnerships within enterprise tech as vendors try to make software that plays nicely with others. But not all partnerships are created equal.

AWS and Salesforce have entered a major partnership.

Image: Protocol

If AWS and Salesforce labeled their relationship on Facebook, they'd probably choose "it's complicated."

In June, the two companies announced a major partnership, one that AWS says is the most comprehensive of all its joint initiatives. For example, customers will have a single login that gets them into both systems, which means users can create blanket data-access policies as well as seamlessly move information across the two platforms. The companies will also jointly build products.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories