Social media giants step up the hunt for fake ads to stem misinformation

Topics Fake news | Google | Coronavirus

Covid-19 pandemic has caused Google and other social media platforms to rethink their advertisement policies and redefine misinformation
Last year, Google blocked and removed 2.7 billion bad advertisements, which is more than 5,000 fake ads per minute. This chilling piece of data, released last week by Google, reveals the extent of the problem that social media and digital platforms face when it comes to creating a safe and trusted publishing space. A problem that has multiplied several times over, as opportunistic operators look to leverage the fear and panic unleashed by the pandemic.

Take the data that Google put out last week. Apart from the bad ads that were culled out of the system, the tech giant said it suspended nearly one million advertiser accounts for policy violations. “On the publisher side, we terminated over 1.2 million accounts and removed ads from over 21 million web pages that are part of our publisher network for violating our policies,” the company announced.

While these numbers indicate the extent and reach of the problem in 2019, all the social media platforms say that the numbers are likely to be far higher this year. And the Covid-19 pandemic, in less than three months, has caused Google and other social media platforms to rethink their advertisement policies and redefine misinformation. 

According to Facebook, Twitter and Google, the ongoing pandemic has created a situation where the issue of false, misleading or sneaky advertising has only intensified. To understand why, one needs to just run through the behavioural impact studies that have been done by several agencies as to how the virus has changed lives. The reports indicate that much of the information being sourced, or commercial transactions being conducted online, are all being done in a state of panic. This creates the perfect breeding ground for fake ads and fake news. 


Most social media platforms say that they took the call, early on, to ban advertisements that took advantage of the situation. Google said it “blocked and removed tens of millions of coronavirus-related ads over the past few months for policy violations including price-gouging, capitalising on global medical supply shortages, making misleading claims about cures and promoting illegitimate unemployment benefits.”

Similarly, Facebook and Instagram cracked down on certain kinds of ads on the platform in early March. "We are temporarily banning advertisements and commerce listings, like those on Marketplace, that sell medical face masks," said the company in a blog post (March 6). On March 20, the company's director of product management tweeted, “In addition to masks, we're now also banning hand sanitiser, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits in ads and commerce listings. This is another step to help protect against inflated prices and predatory behaviour we’re seeing.”
Twitter has a similar policy with a few more restrictions on the advertising narrative employed on its platform. For instance, Twitter has prohibited distasteful references to Covid-19 (or variations) and content likely to be sensational and incite panic. “Since introducing our updated policies on March 18, we’ve removed more than 2,400 tweets containing misleading and potentially harmful content. Our automated systems have challenged more than 3.4 million accounts targeting manipulative discussions around Covid-19. We will continue to use both technology and our teams to help us identify and stop spammy behaviour and accounts,” said Mahima Kaul, director, Public Policy, India and South Asia, Twitter.

The pandemic has added more fuel to the fake fires, so much so that even a smaller platform, such as the image sharing social media network Pinterest, has had to upgrade its filters. “A model trained using labels from Pinterest internally finds keywords or text associated with misinformation and blocks pins with that language while at the same time identifying visual representations associated with medical misinformation,” a Venture Beat report said. 

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