Canadian companies are inadvertently financing news websites criticized for publishing conspiracy theories and misinformation, through advertisements placed there without their knowledge, The Globe and Mail has found.
Google has placed ads from a host of Canadian companies – including airlines, banks, clothing and food stores – as well as public bodies such as Quebec City tourism – on sites that have raised alarm bells with groups tracking pro-Russian coverage and misinformation.
The Globe found more than a dozen ads for Canadian companies appearing on American and French sites including for companies such as Scotiabank, Jetlines, Mattress Mart and Farm Boy.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez warned this week about an increase in misinformation and disinformation on internet platforms. The Communications Security Establishment said last year that Russia was using platforms featuring antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant material to manipulate global audiences.
Among the ads The Globe found were from the Ontario-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies on “fighting antisemitism every day,” placed next to a pictorial portraying Hitler as an LGBTQ activist.
The montage, on American news site ZeroHedge, depicted Hitler, with a purple streak in his hair, as a gay-rights activist. He appears with a rainbow-coloured slogan “California Uber Alles” in Gothic script familiar in the Third Reich, against a map of Europe including “gay Britain.”
Newsguard, a New York-based group that tracks misinformation, warns that Zerohedge “has a pro-Russia perspective” and has published false information and conspiracy theories.
The centre was shocked to find its ads had appeared there and has now asked Google and its digital marketing company to block them.
“It is disturbing that one of our human-rights campaigns could end up on such a despicable website as a result of algorithms that are totally opaque to both advertises and users,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, the centre’s director of policy. “It is incumbent on platforms like Google to create safeguards that will prevent such occurrences on websites that peddle in hate, misinformation or propaganda.”
Google says it has now “demonetized” the page with the Hitler montage for breaching its policies against hateful content.
Lauren Skelly, Google Canada’s spokeswoman, said the website is “regularly reviewed for policy compliance and we remove ads from pages that violate these policies.”
In October, an ad for fashion brand Lululemon appeared next to an article in the Santa Monica Observer falsely claiming that Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, brought his attacker home from a gay bar.
Newsguard says the Santa Monica Observer, has published “inaccurate and misleading claims about COVID-19 and U.S. politics.”
Google, which is among a number of platforms placing such ads on these sites, said in a statement that “the Santa Monica Observer is subject to regular reviews in accordance with standard practice, and we’ve taken action on pages with violating content when appropriate.”
Lululemon’s ads have also appeared on Principia Scientific, which questions climate change and published an article saying Antarctica’s melting glaciers are “alarmist hype.” Google blocked ads appearing there in August, 2022.
Jetlines is one of the Canadian airlines whose ads The Globe found on both ZeroHedge and Les Moutons Rebelles.
Newsguard says Les Moutons Rebelles is “an anonymously run French website that regularly publishes false information, including about the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Both sites are running a strikingly similar article on the Top 10 conspiracy theories that might prove true in 2023, among them that the World Economic Forum will be the first to turn humans into Matrix-like batteries.
Jetlines, a leisure airline, expressed surprise that its ads had appeared there multiple times and is contacting Google.
“We can confirm we have never purchased one ad nor would we on any site that is associated with violations of human rights or hate groups to any population,” said Duncan Bureau, Jetlines’ chief commercial officer.
The airline’s ads have appeared alongside articles by Tyler Durden – an apparent pseudonym styled on the main character in the film Fight Club.
The byline also appears on the story on conspiracy theories that will come true next year, among them “the Left’s plans to normalize and mainstream pedophilia” and a partnership between the United States and Ukraine to research and develop biological weapons – a claim promoted by Russian state media.
ZeroHedge refuted allegations that it has a pro-Russia perspective or publishes false information and conspiracy theories. It said the montage of Hitler as an LGBTQ activist was a syndicated work by a “satirist” – over which ZeroHedge does not have editorial control.
Scotiabank, one of the Canadian banks whose ads appeared on ZeroHedge, which gets four million monthly page views, said in a statement: “We have strict measures in place and work closely with our partners to do everything possible to ensure our ads don’t appear on sites that don’t align with our brand values.”
Destination Québec cité, whose ads promote Quebec City for holidays, said it was unaware they were displayed on the site and has “asked its media placement agency to correct the situation.”
Mattress Mart said its display ads – which appeared on Les Moutons Rebelles and ZeroHedge – are “geo-targeted” and it does not advertise in France.
Digital ads are placed on sites by platforms including Google through a high-speed bidding process that is triggered when someone looks at a website. Information about the viewing habits and lifestyle as well as location of the viewer are fed in and buyers bid to place an ad on the site to show them. Many ads are arranged by digital-advertising outfits, though the company may not know where they appear.
In February, 2022, NewsGuard found an ad for Air Canada that appeared on the website of Sputnik, the Kremlin-controlled Russian news site.
After the invasion of Ukraine later that month, Google blocked ads on the Russian site. It said it has removed ads from tens of thousands of sites, and more than a billion pages displaying unreliable content.
“We have several long-standing policies in place to prevent ads from running alongside unreliable and harmful claims and content promoting hate or violence,” said Wendy Manton, a Google Canada spokesperson. “Taking action against violating content is common practice.”