Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
Media Matters found that Google, Amazon, and Facebook own some of the most popular trackers present on a recently published list of websites devoted to COVID-19 misinformation. That means trackers from Facebook, Amazon, and Google are aiding these websites -- whether by placing or running ads, retargeting visitors, and/or providing visitor intelligence and behavior analytics -- and ultimately helping them reach an audience and make money.
In August, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFR Lab) published a list of websites devoted to pushing COVID-19 misinformation. We used a tool to find the tracking software on these sites, yielding a list of companies including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. While not all trackers Media Matters detected monetize or collect data used to target readers, many of them do.
What Are Trackers?
These trackers "link information about you from different sites, in order to build a profile, based on your browsing history." This data can then be sold or utilized by different parties to target specific information or products to users, such as with targeted ads or political campaigns. According to Forbes:
The rationale is simple: knowing what you click on and where you go informs ad networks about your needs and desires. When they know what you want, they can place ads in your path for those products or services.
That sounds fairly innocuous, and it can be, but the problem is that at scale — and on the open data market — you now have hundreds of virtual avatars in systems that are not under your control. They're profiles that match you to varying degrees: age, location, ethnicity, interests, and potentially much more personal information.
All trackers ultimately allow an entity to try to influence users, and it's done without their knowledge or consent. Not all trackers specifically collect browser histories and build profiles, but they do help a website reach more people and/or make money. If companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, ceased to serve these websites with their trackers, the websites would reach far fewer people and possibly disincentivize misinformation-for-profit operations.
Trackers Found On COVID-19 Misinformation Websites
Media Matters analyzed the COVID-19 misinformation websites identified by DFR Lab, using a Ghostery-based tool that detects "predefined fingerprints of known web tracking technologies," and found that the most common trackers used were owned by Google (which also owns DoubleClick), Amazon, Gravatar, Switch Concepts, WordPress Stats, and Facebook. We found 53 distinct trackers on 91 of the 146 websites listed by DFR Lab. Of these, we identified 448 total instances of a tracker appearing on a website, or an average of nearly five per website.
Amazon Associates, which provides a range of services like advertising and data collection that help target the best audience via behavioral analysis, appeared on 11 websites. Gravatar, a membership widget that allows users to engage one another, appeared on 36 websites. Facebook and Twitter widgets, which integrate with the social media platforms, appeared on 19 and five websites, respectively. Google, and the companies it owns, accounted for a whopping 161, or 36% of trackers found.
The top five companies providing trackers to COVID-19 misinformation websites include:
|Tracker companies||Trackers detected|
Over 50 percent of the total instances of trackers appearing on these websites were instances of ad trackers. Among the 254 instances of ad software we found, Google's company DoubleClick accounted for 86, and Switch Concepts accounted for 27. The Facebook Custom Audience advertising tracker appeared on six websites, which is especially troubling because of the precision with which Facebook may be used to target audiences.
The following table depicts the ad trackers and the number of times we detected them:
|Ad trackers||Tracker count|
|Facebook Custom Audience||6|
Critically, a tracker's presence on a misinformation website doesn't tell us how much money each ad tracker generates. There may be multiple trackers on a site. Not all will generate equal profit, and some trackers might generate little profit. If we considered what percentage of a misinformation website's profit each vendor pays, we would almost certainly see Google's portion grow.
For example, according to the Global Disinformation Index, an organization that researches how mis- and disinformation are monetized, 77 percent of the profit from ads listed on a group of nearly 500 COVID-19 disinformation websites came from Google or a company owned by Google. This means Google may have paid as much as $19.2 million of the $25 million potentially earned by GDI's list of COVID-19 misinformation sites in 2020. (OpenX and Amazon paid out the second and third largest shares of revenues in the Global Disinformation Index report.) One website in the DFR list simply redirected to an Amazon listing rather than using an Amazon Associates tracker, which is an example of another way mis- and disinformation sites monetize and spread false claims.
Recently, NewsGuard, maker of a media literacy browser extension that provides trust ratings for users browsing the internet, published a special report titled Advertising on Misinformation, which explored how misinformation websites generate a substantial profit selling ad space. The report stated that "$2.6 billion in estimated advertising revenue [are] being sent to publishers of misinformation and disinformation each year by programmatic advertisers, including hundreds of millions in revenue supporting false health claims, anti-vaccine myths, election misinformation, partisan propaganda, and other forms of false news."
Why Exposure To Misinformation Matters
Trackers are one way companies can collect data that may help "target customized audiences, or publics, with strategic messaging across devices, channels, and contexts." A report from the Data & Society Research Institute warned that such data -- the same type collected by trackers -- can help build a digital influence machine, which can "identify and target weak points where groups and individuals are most vulnerable to strategic influence." Companies targeting internet users that also work with mis- and disinformation websites may connect the sites with a more receptive audience. And, while these companies profit, we have sadly learned, people who are exposed to COVID-19 misinformation may die preventable deaths as a result.