In the latest salvo in the fake news stakes, Google itself has been identified as a major enabler of the proliferation of websites which spread fake news, or “disinformation.”

It has been revealed in a recent investigation that many of these sites support themselves through the user of Google’s publisher advertising platform, Google Adsense. Adsense allows website owners to opt into Google’s advertising networks, so that ads can be shown on their websites. Depending on the revenue model, website owners are paid per thousand views of the ads, or for clicks on the ads themselves.

Adsense is supposed to have comprehensive policies to prevent this sort of thing, but it seems that they are not being adequately enforced.

Big Name Brands Advertising On Fake News Sites

Despite having reported one such site to Google, it was only after an investigation by News24, who asked leading brands about their presence on such sites, that the site was removed, and within 2 weeks, the site was re-enrolled into Adsense, despite having been removed for violating Google’s advertising policies.

All companies queried denied knowledge of their ad placements, and blamed Google for displaying their ads on fake news sites.

(To be fair, this is almost certainly completely true. Although it is possible to specify sites, or exclude sites, from your Display Network campaign, this has to be done manually, and it certainly wouldn’t be readily apparent if your ads were appearing on sites like this. Especially when “news” type sites are in your target market, which they certainly are for brands like ABSA, Mercedes, Old Mutual etc.)

Google Responds

After going to considerable trouble to contact Google, largely unsuccessfully, (they can be very difficult to get hold of, despite being everywhere), a spokesperson eventually contactedNews24 and explained that each website is required to meet certain criteria before being granted access to the Adsense network. They also stated that both automated and manual reviews are used to determine this eligibility, and that users also had the ability to report fake news sites to them. (You can find the online report form here.)

Despite these claims however, publicly available records show that many of these fake news sites are still part of the Adsense program, and one of them has been using it for advertising since 2016.

Google declined to comment on this, saying that they do not discuss individual websites, but the site in question was subsequently found to be in violation of their policies and was removed late last month. Less than 2 weeks later, at the beginning of this month, the site was once again displaying Adsense adverts, allegedly in error, according to a follow-up with Google made by News24.

Apparently an (we assume) automated appeal lodged by the site was upheld in error, and the sites account was reactivated.

This has allegedly been permanently resolved now.

The Reality…

The reality is that Google is largely automated, and automated systems are not good at identifying things like this. The reality is also that advertising revenue makes up a staggering percentage of Google’s staggering profits, and like any business, which is what they are, the bottom line is often more important than how it gets there.

It’s not that they don’t care (probably), it’s just that the torrent of data they deal with every day makes it very difficult to manage, so unless there’s strong input from users to catch their attention, they tend to (it seems) just let a lot of stuff happen.

So, annoying as it might be, it’s up to us, the users, to keep pushing them.

So…report fake news sites to Google.