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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A new report from NewsGuard, a service that uses trained journalists to rate news and information sites, found that from Oct. 1 through Jan. 12, nearly every major brand in America inadvertently ran automated ads on websites that peddled election conspiracies and misinformation.

Why it matters: The chaotic nature of the modern news cycle and digital advertising landscape has made it nearly impossible for brands to run ads against quality content in an automated fashion without encountering bad content.

Details: According to the report, 1,668 brands ran 8,776 unique ads on the 160 sites flagged in NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracking Center for publishing falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the election.

  • Major corporations like American Express, non-profits like Planned Parenthood, and prominent universities like Harvard and Stanford are just a few examples of companies that NewsGuard found had ads running on problematic sites.
  • In one example, NewsGuard found that Disney, a brand that prides itself on being apolitical and family-friendly, had ads on CharlieKirk.com, a site that repeatedly publishes false claims about the election.

Between the lines: The report finds that advertisers are also inadvertently boosting sites that repeatedly publish conspiracies and misinformation.

  • For example, the report found that Gateway Pundit, a fringe-right outlet known for publishing hoaxes, featured ads from 226 brands and over the past three months.

The big picture: Most advertisers don't intentionally have their ads appear on these types of websites, but the digital advertising ecosystem can sometimes make such content hard to avoid entirely.

  • Most advertisers or their agencies place ads on various websites using programmatic, or automated, technology.
  • Programmatic advertising allows marketers to buy highly-targeted ads across thousands of different websites for a very efficient cost.
  • But because programmatic advertising is bought and sold through a highly-convoluted supply chain, there's also a lot of fraud and accidentally-misplaced ads.

Be smart: Brands are trying to get ahead of the problem but creating blacklists, or lists of words or websites to avoid when buying ads. But blacklists, which aren't fool proof, often inadvertently block quality news sites from receiving ad revenue.

The bottom line: The pandemic, combined with the election drama in the U.S., has led consumers to trust brands over government entities or non-profits.

  • The NewsGuard data presents a serious problem for brands that are expected to lead the country in solving major problems, including fake news and misinformation online.

Go deeper

Big Tech scrambles to prevent inauguration threats

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big Tech companies are scrambling to take action to prevent Inauguration Day violence, taking matters into their own hands after the government was caught ill-prepared for last week's Capitol siege.

What's happening: Major firms are taking a range of steps to stop their platforms from being used to plan, incite or carry out violent acts in Washington, D.C.

42 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Joe Biden's COVID-19 bubble

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The incoming administration is planning extraordinary steps to protect its most prized commodity, Joe Biden, including requiring daily employee COVID tests and N95 masks at all times, according to new guidance sent to some incoming employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: The president-elect is 78 years old and therefore a high risk for the virus and its worst effects, despite having received the vaccine. While President Trump's team was nonchalant about COVID protocols — leading to several super-spreader episodes — the new rules will apply to all White House aides in "high proximity to principals."

Justice Department drops insider trading inquiry against Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) walking through the Senate Subway in the U.S. Capitol in December 2020. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The Department of Justice told Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Tuesday that it will not move forward with insider trading charges against him.

Why it matters: The decision, first reported by the New York Times, effectively ends the DOJ's investigation into the senator's stock sell-off that occurred after multiple lawmakers were briefed about the coronavirus' potential economic toll. Burr subsequently stepped down as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.