Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
A Media Matters analysis found that Google AdSense-linked advertisements were still running on countless hyperpartisan websites peddling fake news nearly a month after Google announced it would ban these types of sites from using its online advertising service. Ads linked to Google AdSense create key revenue streams that make fake news content profitable and enable purveyors of fake news to thrive.
On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. Google’s new policy expanded its existing ban on misleading advertisements, “including promotions for counterfeit goods and weight-loss scams, … to the websites its advertisements run on.” Google spokesperson Andrea Faville released the following statement on the new policy:
Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.
In a report on the decision, The New York Times acknowledged that “it remains to be seen how effective Google’s new policy on fake news will be in practice.”
Despite Google’s announcement nearly a month ago, a Media Matters search of more than 40 fake-news-peddling websites found that a majority were still displaying ads linked to Google AdSense.
Ad revenue is a driving cause of the recent fake news explosion, in which engagement with top fake news stories posted on Facebook surpassed engagement with top news stories from reputable outlets on Facebook in the last three months of the 2016 election. As TechCrunch explained, while mainstream outlets “may be held accountable for exaggeration,” fake news purveyors “can focus on short-term traffic and ad revenue,” which “incentivize(s) misinformation.” Google turns billions in profits by allowing advertisers to use its advertising service on third-party websites.
In November, BuzzFeed broke a story on young Macedonians running more than 100 pro-Donald Trump websites pushing fake news content. The websites’ owners told BuzzFeed that “they don’t care about Donald Trump” — then the Republican presidential nominee — and were “responding to straightforward economic incentives.” Detailing their strategy, they acknowledged that “the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.” The teens then earn money from ads on their websites as a result of increased traffic via Facebook clicks. Anecdotally, BuzzFeed reported that unnamed owners earned up to $3,000 per day or $5,000 per month.
The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser detailed how fake news writers make money, with one interviewee telling her he makes “$10,000 a month from AdSense.” That same fake news writer said that if Google and Facebook “are successful in stopping fake-news sites from profiting … the effect would be devastating for his revenue.” David Carroll, an expert in advertising technology and professor at the New School, estimated that one fake-news share from a person within the Trump campaign “could earn the lucky hoaxer as much as $10,000 in extra revenue” and called it a “‘huge economic incentive to create stories that they want to distribute.’”
In practice, Google’s announced ban can be effective in stopping websites from peddling fake news. RedFlag News, which frequently publishes fake news stories, announced on December 2 that Google had disabled its advertising service on the platform. According to the website, RedFlag News saw a “50% drop in traffic” and a sharp decline in its Facebook audience engagement in recent weeks. The site is now accepting donations to its “Facebook, Google AdSense & Twitter Emergency Fund” to stay afloat.
Evidence suggests, however, that plenty of websites that push fake news stories have yet to feel the effects of Google’s ban, instead remaining incentivized to publish fabricated, sensationalist content without regard for the truth.
Image created by Sarah Wasko.