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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

Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech bolts politics

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech fed politics. Then it bled politics. Now it wants to be dead to politics. 

Why it matters: The social platforms that profited massively on politics and free speech suddenly want a way out — or at least a way to hide until the heat cools. 

U.S. ambassador to Russia will return home briefly: State Department

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during a briefing in Moscow in 2015. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

The State Department said Monday that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, will now be returning to the United States this week before returning to Moscow "in the coming weeks."

Why this matters: The statement, from a State Department spokesperson, comes just hours after Axios reported that Sullivan had indicated he intended to stand his ground and stay in Russia after the Kremlin “advised” him to return home to talk with his team.

Scoop: Leaked Ukraine memo reveals scope of Russia's aggression

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a military exposition in Sevastopol, Crimea, in Jan. 2020. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia has been holding last-minute military exercises near commercial shipping lanes in the Black Sea that threaten to strangle Ukraine's economy, according to an internal document from Ukraine's ministry of defense reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: With the eyes of the world on the massive buildup of troops in eastern Ukraine, the leaked memo shows Russian forces escalating their presence on all sides of the Ukrainian border.