The Misinformation Pandemic: How Ads Have Contributed to COVID-19 Lies


Caitlynn Kelley, Twitter, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This is an illustration of a fake news website, which promotes the false notion that Bill Gates funded the COVID-19 pandemic, and that 5G causes COVID-19. Bill Gates has been at the center of many conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, including that he microchips people when they get vaccinated for the COVID-19, and that he is profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ads from reputable companies and organizations have indirectly supported websites like these by placing ads on them.

Caitlynn Kelley, Editor

A misinformation pandemic has spread. Misinformation can brainwash people into believing false COVID-19 cures that prove to be harmful, or even make people disband from family, and embark on a mission to fight against a false perception of a pedophilic cabal filled with Democrats and elites. Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic has spread like wildfire due to social media. Anyone is susceptible to misinformation, especially if they do not have media literacy. Now, websites, such as NOQReport and Independent Sentinel, have gotten more attention and are able to spread their message even further due to advertisements from reputable companies and even government agencies being placed on their websites. 

The CDC, Pfizer, Rite Aid, and many other reputable companies have had their ads placed indirectly on websites that support misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, 4,315 brands have hosted 42,000 ads that have featured misinformation about the COVID-19. Many of these brands have supported campaigns on COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC is a government institution and it has had multiple campaigns for eradication of the COVID-19. Pfizer is one of the main companies that distributes their own COVID-19 vaccine. 

Many companies do not have the liberty of knowing the advertisements that appear on their websites, due to them being programmatic. Programmatic ads are known to be less expensive than human interest ads, and offer ads that target certain demographics. Programmatic ad spending is predicted to increase by $20 billion dollars in 2021 from $127 billion dollars made in 2020. Google and The Trade Desk made up the bulk of the ads that promoted COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The Trade Desk is the largest programmatic advertising company in the world. 

Newsguard has stated that if it was easier for websites to know where ads for their companies or institutions are going, that it would decrease the level of promotion that these conspiracy theorist websites get. The misinformation sites would not be able to promote their information as highly as they can, without ads from reputable companies and even government institutions. 

Senior Louie Cambalon talked about the various misinformation he has seen about the COVID-19 pandemic. “I saw a post that said that COVID-19 is fake and another post that  blamed 5G for the virus. I believe I saw the 5G post in early April in 2020. The CDC website and Harvard have debunked COVID-19 misinformation.”

Junior Orlando Pereira states that while he uses an adblocker, he suspects that ads that support misinformation are frequent “with the current accessibility and ease that ads can be put up with.”

On how reputable websites have their ads on misinformation sites, Cambalon is still very shocked by this, “No one is thinking about any of this. These websites should look at which websites their ads are on, either if their ads are placed indirectly or directly.” 

Pereira, however, is not shocked. He states, “This is not surprising as most of these major companies most likely use some sort of computer algorithm that buys ads without verifying where their ad is being placed. I had not heard of something like this before, however I have heard of the opposite happening, where ads found on reputable websites contained misinformation.”

Regarding how companies can stop having their ads on misinformation sites, Pereira suggests, “I think that companies could use the same approach as Newsguard, perhaps supplying their ad placing algorithms with the tools to possibly identify that a website is spreading misinformation, allowing it to know to not put an ad on those websites. They may even be able to work directly with Newsguard, seeing as Newsguard has already identified many misinformation websites.”

Again, Pereira reiterates that the algorithms they use are why companies are seeing their ads placed on these malicious sites. “Same as with the other major companies, I would expect these other companies to be using algorithms to place their ads as well. Especially [nonprofit organizations] who need to limit their spending as much as possible. Due to the use of algorithms, the pattern is not surprising. Companies will usually go with the flow, so adopting the use of ad placing algorithms should be expected from most companies.”

Regarding all of the conspiracy theories that these websites promote, Camablon is not surprised, “I wouldn’t be surprised about Bill Gates [the conspiracy theory about him starting the virus]. QAnon supporters talk about a lot of crazy things. I haven’t looked at any conspiracy theory websites.”

Cambalon is almost at a loss of words when learning about how programmatic ads work, “I don’t know what to say. The question is, who installed these ads to give the AI to distribute the ads and to host them on conspiracy theory websites?”

Pereira believes that companies should invest in anti-misinformation software, in order for them to not accidentally promote misinformation, “I think that companies are smart in using programmatic ads as it allows them to save money and get their message around the internet more easily. However, I do believe that changes are necessary in order to prevent the [accidental] support of misinformation. For example, as I had stated earlier, companies could use an algorithm as Newsguard does in order to identify and avoid misinformation. I had not heard of the exact name before, but I was aware that companies used computer software to place ads for them. If I were buying ads for companies, I would avoid programmatic ads because of these problems that they have had with accidental support of misinformation. However, I would also bring up this issue, and attempt to convince my company that investing in anti-misinformation software would be more beneficial, as they could then continue to use programmatic ads without having to worry about the negative consequences.”

I think that companies are smart in using programmatic ads as it allows them to save money and get their message around the internet more easily. However, I do believe that changes are necessary in order to prevent the [accidental] support of misinformation….”

— Orlando Pereira

Banning sites that post misinformation is a way to go in order to stop the spread of misinformation, Cambalon says, “You can ban them, although it is a violation of the 1st amendment. However, their lies… spread and their claims aren’t backed up with any information.”

It would not be a violation as the First Amendment only applies to whether the government can stifle your speech or not. This amendment only protects American citizen’s speech against government intrusion. If someone said something that incited violence (for instance, fighting words), their speech is not protected under the First Amendment. Private companies are not held to the same standard the government is on the First Amendment. Private companies, such as Facebook, are allowed to ban posts that they find in violation of their company’s policy. 

If Cambalon were the CEO or spokesperson for a company, and he found out that his ads were run on misinformation sites, he would say, “[The misinformation websites] are false and have a website that is run by someone who can check what the programs are to install the ads on my websites.”

Pereira stated, “As a CEO, I would first apologize to the public for letting this problem go unnoticed, and I would explain how it was unintentional due to the use of programmatic ads. Being CEO, I would have the power to invest in the anti-misinformation AI that I have mentioned earlier, making it more likely to be adopted by my company as well as hopefully influencing other companies to do the same.”

Many that digest misinformation about the COVID-19 are less willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and hear many falsehoods, including that the virus was man-made. People who hear misinformation are most likely to still believe it, even after it is debunked. Misinformation also leads to violent action and distrust in media organizations. There have been many hospitalizations and deaths across the world, due to people’s beliefs in COVID-19 misinformation. 

Facebook has decided to ban all ads that feature COVID-19 disinformation, which even includes information that promotes the COVID-19 vaccine. This brings into question whether Facebook will be a hindrance to the promotion of the coronavirus vaccine. Those that sponsor the ads that promote the COVID-19 vaccine campaign are able to appeal what Facebook has done to them, but many believe that it is too financially risky to do so, due to the COVID-19 variants circulating and the slow distribution of vaccines. 

On March 3, 2021, Facebook decided to lift its ban of political ads, which started in the first place due to wanting to quell misinformation during the 2020 Presidential Election. Google, a week earlier, also lifted their ban on political ads. Both Google and Facebook are major platforms where strategists in both parties use to be able to gain followers. Political strategists from both parties during the 2020 Presidential Election could not use Facebook, which was a major platform to get in touch with supporters or would be supporters. During the 2020 Presidential Election, strategists reverted to sending texts or emails to potential voters and voters to be able to build up momentum for their campaigns. Democrat strategists have criticized how Facebook stopped political advertising, saying that they are targeting all advertising that features political events/opinion, and not the main source (misinformation). This strikingly harkens back to how Facebook is just banning all of the ads that are about COVID-19, even those that do not feature misinformation or support the vaccine campaign. 

Facebook also gained controversy amongst Senate Democrats in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, due to the report that there were ads that advocated for 2020 Presidential Election conspiracy theories alongside ads that had gun accessories and other weaponry. Senate Democrats called on Zuckerburg to be more transparent on the content of these ads, and who they are targeting, in order for hatred and violence to not be promoted. 

Transparency International states that companies like Facebook and Google must be held accountable for their actions, and that many people do not know where the funding is coming from.

Cambalon believes that Facebook is just being lazy when banning ads surrounding COVID-19, “Facebook does care, but they are going to the extent, whether the ad is true or false, and they’re banning them anyway. It takes a lot of money to hire people to look over the ads.”

Pereira recommends that Facebook should change their plan on getting rid of COVID-19 misinformation, so they will not block necessary information about COVID-19, “I do not blame Facebook for the mistakes that it made, as it was necessary in order for them to attempt to block misinformation. I have been aware that Facebook has had problems with these sorts of ads, stemming back to the 2016 election, where they were found to have been hosting Russian-based ad campaigns that attempted to persuade people into voting for Donald Trump. Facebook however should refine their system, as it appears that they have struggles with separating different types of ads relating to the same subject. Their review system needs to improve so that it can filter out misinformation, rather than getting rid of all information in general. Also, with freedom of expression, there is a difference between fact and opinion. People may have an opinion on something, but it is impossible to deny facts. So, attempting to get rid of misinformation should not be considered as a violation of freedom of expression.”

The Ad Council has released an ad campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine. It states that it will include influential people, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Angela Bassett, and others to promote it. The campaign has resources for Black and Hispanic communities, doctors, churches and pharmacists to get them and others aware about the vaccine. Ad Council is partnering up with the NAACP, Color of Change, UnidosUS, and many other organizations. The campaign tells people that it is up to them to get vaccinated. For those who are not sure whether to get vaccinated or not, an advertisement states, “Getting Back to Hugs Starts with Getting Informed.” This ad campaign will be in English and Spanish. There will be ads that are targeted towards the Latino and Black communities, in order to make them less hesitant in getting vaccinated. Also, there will be a social media aspect to the campaign. There will be TikTokers and the gaming community will advocate for the campaign and there is also going to be a vaccine emoji that supports others to go get vaccinated on Twitter. Former presidents and first ladies, except former President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, were also featured in an ad council ad to help promote the COVID-19 vaccine. 

On the Ad Council ad campaign, Cambalon believes that it will be successful, “It will honestly help people, especially if they have wealthy or influential people in their campaign. There will always be a minority that will always be skeptical, and won’t have the vaccine. You can’t stop that. What if Trump comes out of nowhere and tells people to take the vaccine?”

[The Ad Council campaign] will honestly help people, especially if they have wealthy or influential people in their campaign. There will always be a minority that will always be skeptical, and won’t have the vaccine. You can’t stop that.”

— Louie Cambalon

Trump did advocate for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine in his speech at CPAC. He also got vaccinated in January 2021 for the COVID-19.

Cambalon continues, “Some of his supporters will, and others will say that he betrayed them. Influential people will help and the organization that is doing this will help. No matter how successful your campaign is and the influential people you include, there will always be dumb people that won’t take the vaccine. Anti-vaxxers aren’t going to take it, I don’t know whether they are dying or not. Take the vaccine. Wait it out to see how it goes. There will always be side effects.”

Regarding the effectiveness of the Ad Council campaign, Pereira believes that it will be successful, and will help more people learn on how to protect themselves against the COVID-19, “I believe the campaign can be effective because it emphasizes the fact that getting the vaccine is a choice. People do not like being told what to do, so allowing them to convince themselves that they should get the vaccine seems like a really good way to promote it. I personally like the idea as people will not only be convinced into getting a vaccine, but the ads can also link them to lots of other resources that can teach them about many other aspects of the virus and how to better protect themselves.”

Ways to combat misinformation is to always consider the source where you get the information. Does it come from a mysterious, strange source where the information seems conflated? Or does the information come from a news source that is balanced, and the information is presented in a proper manner? People must double check to make sure what they are reading is true or false, in order to not get tricked.