Nature                          volume  630, pages  123–131 (2024 )Cite this article                      The financ

Companies inadvertently fund online misinformation despite consumer backlash

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2024-06-06 19:00:06

Nature volume  630, pages 123–131 (2024 )Cite this article

The financial motivation to earn advertising revenue has been widely conjectured to be pivotal for the production of online misinformation1,2,3,4. Research aimed at mitigating misinformation has so far focused on interventions at the user level5,6,7,8, with little emphasis on how the supply of misinformation can itself be countered. Here we show how online misinformation is largely financed by advertising, examine how financing misinformation affects the companies involved, and outline interventions for reducing the financing of misinformation. First, we find that advertising on websites that publish misinformation is pervasive for companies across several industries and is amplified by digital advertising platforms that algorithmically distribute advertising across the web. Using an information-provision experiment9, we find that companies that advertise on websites that publish misinformation can face substantial backlash from their consumers. To examine why misinformation continues to be monetized despite the potential backlash for the advertisers involved, we survey decision-makers at companies. We find that most decision-makers are unaware that their companies’ advertising appears on misinformation websites but have a strong preference to avoid doing so. Moreover, those who are unaware and uncertain about their company’s role in financing misinformation increase their demand for a platform-based solution to reduce monetizing misinformation when informed about how platforms amplify advertising placement on misinformation websites. We identify low-cost, scalable information-based interventions to reduce the financial incentive to misinform and counter the supply of misinformation online.

The prevalence of online misinformation can have important social consequences, such as contributing to greater fatalities during the COVID-19 pandemic10, exacerbating the climate crisis11, and sowing political discord12. Yet the supply of misinformation is often financially motivated. The economic incentive to produce misinformation has been widely conjectured by academics and practitioners to be one of the main reasons websites that publish misinformation (hereafter referred to as ‘misinformation websites’ or ‘misinformation outlets’), masquerading as legitimate news outlets, continue to be prevalent online1,2,3,4. During the 2016 US Presidential election, one operator of a misinformation outlet openly stated “For me, this is all about income”13.

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