Intentionally or not, big brands help fund fake news

AP PHOTO In this Jan. 19, photo, a fake news story is positioned near ads from major global corporations on The Red Elephants website.

NEW YORK — Wittingly or not, major global corporations are helping fund sites that traffic in fake news by advertising on them.

Take, for instance, a story that falsely claimed former President Barack Obama had banned Christmas cards to overseas military personnel. Despite debunking by The Associated Press and other fact-checking outlets, that article lives on at “Fox News The FB Page,” which has no connection to the news channel although its bears a replica of its logo.

And until recently, the story was often flanked by ads from big brands such as the insurer Geico, the business-news outlet Financial Times, and the beauty-products maker Revlon.

This situation isn’t remotely an isolated case, although major companies generally say they have no intention of bankrolling purveyors of fake news with their ad dollars. Because many of their ads are placed on websites by computer algorithms, it’s not always easy for these companies to steer them away from sites they find objectionable.

Google, the biggest player in the digital ad market, places many of these ads. The company says it bars ads on its network from appearing against “misrepresentative content” — its term for fake news — yet Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville acknowledged that the company had sold ads on the site with the Christmas-card story.

Those ads vanished after The Associated Press inquired about them. Faville declined to comment on their disappearance.

Media advertising was much simpler when companies had only to buy ad space in newspapers or magazines to reach readers in a particular demographic category. Digital ads, by contrast, can wind up in unexpected places because they’re placed by automated systems, not sales teams, and targeted at individuals rather than entire demographics.

In effect, these ads follow potential customers around the web, where a tangle of networks and exchanges place them into ad slots at online publications.

Such automated ads are a major income source for fake news stories, which may have influenced voters in the U.S. presidential election.

False stories can undermine trust in real news — and they can be dangerous. A widely shared but untrue story that pegged a Washington, D.C., pizzeria as part of a Hillary Clinton-run child sex trafficking ring led a man to fire a gun in the restaurant.