Tips to determine who's funding online ads linked to disinformation

byIsabella GenoveseJun 28, 2023 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Man holding money

Websites that facilitate disinformation often employ a combination of revenue sources. By pinpointing streams of profit, journalists can find the players and trace the networks responsible for funding false content online. Identifying those who perpetuate disinformation is integral to debunking lies and uncovering the truth. 

“Disinformation was once thought to be organic, but now we realize it is organized with very specific goals in mind,” said Rosental Alves, founding director for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, during opening remarks for ICFJ’s new Disarming Disinformation initiative.

In the first of four master classes held in partnership with the Knight Center, ProPublica reporter Craig Silverman covered the bases for identifying online ads linked to disinformation, and mapping the funders behind them.

Disinformation publisher revenue streams

Display and content ads are the two most common types of digital advertising. Display ads are the banners featured on a website’s border, while content ads are those formatted to look like a piece of the website’s content. The latter are often structured like an article with a headline and photo. 

Both types of ads are placed in an automated buying and selling auction process called programmatic advertising, where featured ads target users based on details gathered from their search histories. The result of this intermediary system, Silverman explained, is that “advertisers are often unaware where their displays may appear.”

Sponsored content is a traditional type of advertorial; it is presented as editorial content, but labeled as an advertisement with a disclosed funder. Frequently found within sponsored content, affiliate ads link to websites where products can be purchased. The website on which the ad appears gets paid, creating a commission-based relationship. “They differ from programmatic advertising because of the direct relationship between the sponsored content and the publisher,” Silverman said. 

Websites, among them those peddling disinformation, typically leverage other sources of funding, as well. These include ecommerce, in which websites sell merchandise and health products; donations from readers; and membership that offers audiences exclusive content upon payment. This final source can facilitate content that eludes fact-checkers due to the direct revenue relationship.

Finally, through undisclosed funding, individuals, companies and states may finance a desired cause without revealing their identity. This leaves no web content behind for investigators to track the source. “The last stream of revenue, undisclosed funders, is the hardest to follow because it is hidden,” said Silverman. “The money comes from unknown sources.”

Tips for investigating

When beginning the search for the perpetrators funding disinformation online, one should first identify any ads on the sites in question and determine their origins, said Silverman. 

For display ads, “look for a small triangle in the banner’s upper right corner and click on it to see the ad network who placed it,” he explained. “That’s who the website is working with to make money.” 

Silverman continued: “Donations can be evaluated by noting the payment processing service that is used (e.g. PayPal), clicking on the donate link to see if it reveals more about the name, company or individual requesting money, and gathering possible contacts to build a network for investigation.” To find ecommerce, look for links to products on a site. Once you find them, dig further to discover “who is providing the ecommerce store and what products are being sold,” he said.

Undisclosed funders pose a major challenge, Silverman warned. He noted, however, that there are ways to detect secretive funding. Sites that have undisclosed revenue sources may not have monetization or enough expressed financial support to uphold their output, staffing and operations. This “mismatch of resources,” Silverman explained, “indicates that funding is coming from less obvious sources.” 

He suggested that investigators talk to former employees, contractors or contributors who may have valuable insight, to acquire more information about an organization’s funding. Finding documents from an organization, such as corporate records, will allow journalists to identify entities or owners that may be linked to or attributed as the funding culprits. 

For a deeper dive into an advertisement’s sources, researchers should check the ads.txt of a linked ad, and pay close attention to the direct records to see what partners are listed. Silverman also highlighted browser tools that scan sites and detect the type of advertising technology being used, which may be helpful in accelerating the investigation process. These include the Ghostery browser plug-in, which helps identify ads and their monetary ties, and The Markup’s Blacklight, which scans a website’s advertising partners and the technology they use. 

Researchers should deactivate their ad blockers while conducting investigations so that they can view all ads on a site. Otherwise, some may be filtered out. Silverman further suggested that researchers investigate using their colleagues’ or others’ online profiles to account for the ads they see, too. Their individualized web browsers and search histories will populate unique selections of advertisements, widening accessibility to data as a result. 

Silverman concluded with a couple additional key points. While investigating, it is crucial to note what a website is selling or promoting, to distinguish between direct relationship and intermediary ads, and to identify if there are efforts to conceal revenue. Keep an eye out, too, for trends that may help connect dots showing proof of coordination among disinformation funders. 

Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.

Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash.