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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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WASHINGTON — New research from the Global Disinformation Index (“GDI”) shows that companies, including major brands, bought $12 million in ads this year on Spanish-language sites that push COVID-19 disinformation, with Google’s online ad-placement service contributing more than half of the revenue.

The GDI research, released Wednesday in coordination with Free Press and SumOfUs, is available here: https://bit.ly/3EzEzgS

Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities in the United States have been targeted online by all kinds of disinformation — including content about the pandemic and elections — that is designed to sow division and heighten distrust in our institutions and each other. As public-health practitioners are working to debunk conspiracy theories that undermine trust in COVID-19 vaccines, this new research shows that Google is making the problem worse.

The study found that in 2021, major corporations including AT&T, Adidas, Chipotle, Levi’s and Panera Bread spent $12 million to buy ad space on 56 Spanish-language websites featuring disinformation. Google alone delivered $6 million in ad revenues to the sites in the study sample.

For example, Google placed a Levi’s ad on disinformation site TierraPura that ran adjacent to an article that falsely claimed the horse-deworming medicine Ivermectin was a safe and effective treatment for COVID. Google placed a Chipotle ad on disinformation site AlertaDigital adjacent to an article falsely claiming that two-thirds of COVID deaths in the United Kingdom involved people who were vaccinated.

“Disinformation permeates every aspect of our society, playing on fears and pitting communities against each other and our democratic institutions,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director, digital justice and civil rights at Free Press. “Where the pandemic is concerned, health disinformation truly has life-and-death consequences. Google is profiting off disinformation that kills people. The company must immediately stop featuring dangerous and misleading ads. This deceitful content harms millions of Spanish-language users who see these ads and shape their views based on lies fueled by corporate money.”

“Online disinformation creates real offline harms — as we have seen to great tragedy throughout the pandemic,” said Clare Melford, co-founder and executive director at Global Disinformation Index. “One of the most powerful levers to stopping this is to cut the financial incentives driving this disinformation. Strong leadership from the Ad Tech industry is needed now. Concrete action and a whole-of-industry approach can create healthier information ecosystems and healthier communities.”

“Google is bankrolling COVID disinformation sites and it’s real people who are paying the price,” said Khadija Gurnah, campaign advisor at SumOfUs. “Google positions itself as a progressive organization; it should put that into action today by making sure it isn’t profiting from Spanish-language COVID-disinformation sites.”

To compile this data, GDI gathered advertising run-rate data between March and October 2021 on 56 Spanish-language sites. The research builds on the national debate about disinformation online, including Google’s recent decision to stop running ads that promote climate denial and other misinformation on YouTube videos. The company has also recently taken steps to take tougher action against English-language sites spreading coronavirus disinformation.

Last week, Free Press led 44 other civil-rights, media-democracy and consumer-advocacy groups to call on the Federal Trade Commission to initiate a rulemaking to promote civil and privacy rights and set guardrails against the abuse of data online. The groups urged the agency to pay particular attention to the ways that powerful online platforms use unfair data practices to target diverse communities in the United States.

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