Months before the Russian invasion, false narratives about Ukraine and its allies were already proliferating online. Despite the European ban on RT and Sputnik, this trend has only worsened since February. Among the reasons for the overwhelming success of disinformation on the Internet there is money: according to an estimate, each year, top brands send $2.6 billion to misinformation and disinformation websites in advertising revenue.
WAN-IFRA was able to explore this phenomenon thanks to the participation of Newsguard in a few of our regular Media Policy Briefings with Member Associations.
From false claims of Ukrainian genocide directed at Russian-speaking Ukrainians, to assertions that Nazi ideology was driving Ukraine’s political leadership, disinformation was used to justify Russia’s invasion. Some myths were minimizing the Russian aggression, others were pretending that massacres had been staged, and more attempted to discredit the Ukrainian leadership and its allies. Even though in no way comparable in scale, pro-Ukraine misinformation also started to emerge.
Governments and platforms quickly took measures to combat Kremlin-backed disinformation. In March 2022, RT and Sputnik were banned in Europe. Yet, the ecosystem of websites and social media accounts spreading war disinformation kept growing. Shortly after the war started, NewsGuard launched a Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center, listing the main myths being spread, and the number of sites spreading them. At launch in March, this Tracking Center counted 116 disinformation providers. In early April, this number had jumped to 172. And as of June 10, 2022, it had reached 229.
On TikTok, a platform used by over one billion monthly active users, most of whom are very young, NewsGuard found that users were being actively fed false information about the war within 40 minutes of connecting to the app, even without searching for Ukraine-related content. And to help that process further, other foreign actors stepped in to replace the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus as soon as it was curbed. For instance a report shows State-run media from Russia-friendly countries, including China and Venezuela, had quickly filled the void left by the RT and Sputnik ban on Facebook and YouTube.
And while Russian narratives on the war were propagating around the world, spread by friendly countries as well as local misinformation providers in all corners of Europe, the United States and Canada, in Russia, Russians were being further pushed into a completely sealed propaganda bubble.
Of course, one of the reasons why misinformation is so successful and viral online is ideology. But business is also a large part of it. As of early June 2022, 66 of the 200+ websites listed in the Russia-Ukraine misinformation tracking center were still receiving programmatic advertising, with blue chip brands unintentionally funding their false claims, many through Google’s advertising platform. And many of these sites are repeat offenders: as evidenced in a recent report, 91 websites that appear in the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center have now also spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine and appear in the Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center.
Programmatic advertising is a byzantine process: the automatic placement of digital ads online via algorithms, through live auctions. To oversee these placements, and make sure they are not putting the brand’s image at risk, advertisers usually rely on brand safety companies. But these AI companies, while great at spotting violent or pornographic content, have a much harder time spotting misinformation and disinformation, which are often made to look like legitimate news.
According to an estimate by NewsGuard and Comscore, each year, top brands send $2.6 billion to misinformation and disinformation websites in advertising revenue. That includes hundreds of millions of dollars that support false State-backed foreign disinformation, misinformation on the integrity of elections, COVID-19 claims, and anti-vaccine myths, among others.
So what can be done? At the WAN-IFRA briefings, the speakers laid out a few possible solutions, starting with making misinformation less lucrative through decisive action from top companies to stop sending ad revenue to these sites and instead support responsible journalism (which remains, to date, the best antidote to misinformation.) Initiatives like browser extensions and trust indicators can help publishers re-build trust with their audience, and encourage readers to build their media literacy skills and grow more skeptical of online sources of information. NewsGuard also highlighted the importance for platforms to be more transparent and share more information about the reach of misinformation, because combating such a vast and diverse problem requires really understanding it first.
MORE ON NEWSGUARD
NewsGuard’s co-Managing Editors for Europe, Chine Labbe and Virginia Padovese, were the speakers who appeared before WAN-IFRA Member Associations to detail their findings on the disinformation war that’s unfolding after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
NewsGuard is a company that uses journalism to fight misinformation and disinformation, through credibility ratings of news and information sites, based on apolitical journalistic criteria of credibility and transparency; as well as a catalog of the most popular hoaxes circulating online. Now in six countries (the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, Germany and Canada), NewsGuard has since its launch in 2018 rated more than 7,500 sites, representing 95% of online engagement in the countries it operates in. It also has cataloged over 350 myths.
The idea behind NewsGuard is simple: offer a transparent, accountable system of ratings for news online, opposite to the black boxes of algorithms, and an alternative to fact-checking, by rating news at the source level; with no politics involved.
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