Follow the Money: How the Online Advertising Ecosystem Funds COVID-19 Junk News and Disinformation

3 August 2020


As people around the world turn towards search engines to access information about COVID-19, it is important to understand why and how users are being exposed to junk news content. In this memo, we examine the role of search engines and their optimization processes in directing traffic towards junk news & disinformation about COVID-19, and how these sites, in turn, monetize that traffic through digital advertising. We ask:

  • How do the search engine optimization strategies of professional news sources compare to those of junk news & disinformation sources?
  • In what way do third party sites boost the online reputation of junk news and disinformation on COVID-19 through backlinks?
  • How and to what extent do major advertising platforms monetize junk news & disinformation around COVID-19?

Comparing professional versus junk news & disinformation sources, our analysis draws from a sample of 830 sources of news and information that are reporting on COVID-19. We review key search engine optimization (SEO) metrics, as a means of assessing sites’ online reputation, and their reliance on advertising. We find that:

  1. The top junk news & disinformation sources achieve outstandingly high key SEO factors and are slightly better optimised for distribution on search and social media.
  2. Major high-prestige, high-trust sites inadvertently boost junks news & disinformation promoting their online reputation and visibility.
  3. The overwhelming majority of junk news & disinformation domains rely on major advertising platforms to monetize their pages and 61 percent of junk news & disinformation sources used Google ads.

Emily Taylor, Lisa-Maria Neudert, Stacie Hoffmann & Philip N. Howard. “Follow the Money: How the Online Advertising Ecosystem Funds COVID-19 Junk News and Disinformation.” COVID-19 SERIES COMPROP WORKING PAPER 2020.1 August 3 2020. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.

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