Automated adverts for well-known and respected brands have appeared alongside stories from Russian state-owned media that appear to promote conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and Covid-19 vaccines.
A Press Gazette investigation found adverts for Ebay, The Week magazine, Sweaty Betty and JD Sports running alongside the content, much of which has been promoted on RT’s social media channels in strong conspiratorial tones. “Take the #COVID19 shot? After you, mister #Gates,” said one tweet, while another questioned whether readers could “trust” the billionaire.
None of the brands were aware that their marketing material was appearing alongside this content. And at least two – Ebay and The Week’s owner, Dennis Publishing – banned Google from placing their ads on RT.com after being alerted to their presence on the website by Press Gazette.
Presented with the evidence of our investigation, Imran Ahmed – chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate – said there was a “clear, deep cynicism in the tone [RT has] adopted towards Bill Gates and a coronavirus vaccine”.
An RT spokesperson claimed all conspiracy theories are identified as such in the outlet’s coverage. They added that social media posts highlighted by Press Gazette were published in “irony”.
However, our investigation suggests that many of the articles do not contain sufficient caveats or state that there is no evidence to support the conspiracy theories. On social media, we found that RT stories about Gates and vaccines have been seized on by conspiracy theorists like David Icke.
Social media has been rife with unfounded conspiracy theories about Gates during the coronavirus crisis. Fact-checkers from across the world have repeatedly dismissed untrue claims about the businessman and philanthropist.
‘Take the #COVID19 shot? After you, mister #Gates’
— RT (@RT_com) June 27, 2020
One RT article, published in late June and headlined “Bill Gates says ‘final hurdle’ to distributing a Covid-19 vaccine will be convincing people to TAKE IT”, appears to play into unfounded conspiracy theories that Gates has a sinister reason for wanting many people across the world to be vaccinated against the disease.
The story is based on fact – a report on a CNN interview with Gates. But the tone of the article appears to suggest there is reason to be suspicious of the Microsoft founder.
The piece, which does not have a byline, describes a potential future Covid-19 vaccine as something that Gates “wants to inject into every human on the planet”. It reports that Gates had “insisted” rates of infection were increasing in the US – something that is clear from official figures – and “bragged” about the potential for producing a vaccine.
RT reported that Gates has “repeatedly expressed a desire to inoculate the world’s population with whatever vaccine emerges from the research laboratories he is funding”. The website reported that some of Gates’ words were “implying [people] had no choice” but to take a vaccine.
Promoting the article to its millions of followers across Twitter and Facebook, RT asked its readers: “Would you trust Bill Gates with your health?” A separate tweet said: “Take the #COVID19 shot? After you, mister #Gates.”
The article has also been seized on by conspiracy theorists, including the son of David Icke.
Google-run adverts feature alongside the story on RT’s website. There are also promotions on the page for users to follow RT on Google News.
‘Next step, smartphone chips in our brains!’
Under a story headlined: “Is that Big Brother behind the medical mask? Bill Gates to co-fund South Korean research of next-gen quarantine methods”, RT reported that the “project may stir uncomfortable thoughts in those who suspect the billionaire of having a sinister agenda”.
It later reported that some people “can’t help but see sinister undertones beyond the philanthropy” of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In this article, RT did acknowledge that conspiracy theories about Gates are “not widespread, though the hardships of Covid-19 lockdowns seem to fuel all sorts of connect-the-dots sort of thinking”.
But tweeting a link to the article, RT said: “Next step, smartphone chips in our brains! Can’t wait!”
Next step, smartphone chips in our brains! Can't wait!https://t.co/HzO5smqyT7
— RT (@RT_com) May 19, 2020
Vaccine progress kicks ‘off a storm of concerns online’
A similar story reports on concerns about the fact that a firm with links to Gates – Novavax, which has received grants from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which itself has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – had begun testing a Covid-19 vaccine.
The first sentence of the article reported that the news was “kicking off a storm of concerns online”.
It later added: “In doling out his vast fortune to a number of similar health initiatives over the years – primarily through his own Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the Microsoft mogul has drawn intense suspicion and doubt from the conspiracy-minded, who posit that Gates is committed to a ‘depopulation’ agenda to rid the planet of its useless eaters. News of Gates’ connection to the Novavax trial set off alarms for some netizens, many warning the project is ‘not to be trusted’ and urging Gates himself to volunteer to be the first guinea pig to receive the rushed-out vaccine.”
Press Gazette found an advert for subscriptions to The Week magazine featuring alongside this article.
The title’s owner, Dennis Publishing, declined to comment. But Press Gazette understands the publisher – which was not aware that its marketing materials were being programmatically placed next to this content – now plans to add RT to an advertising exclusion list of around 500 websites.
‘Bill Gates seeks to microchip humanity!’
Another recent article – “‘Bill Gates seeks to microchip humanity!’ Russian Oscar-winning director pushes vaccine conspiracy… loosely-based on REAL patent” – reports on the wild theories of Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov. The article was promoted by conspiracy theorist David Icke on his website.
— David Icke (@davidicke) May 5, 2020
Press Gazette found adverts for Sweaty Betty featuring alongside this article. Sweaty Betty did not respond to requests for comment.
Another article, “Gates dismisses ‘bizarre’ Covid-19 conspiracy theories as his impact on WHO, global health business increases”, reports on various theories about the businessman that have been “swirling around” the internet.
Although the piece reports on Gates dismissing allegations against him, it does little to state that none of the theories have any evidence behind them.
Press Gazette found adverts for Sweaty Betty, JD Sports and Ebay featuring alongside this story. JD Sports declined to comment.
After being alerted to its presence on the page, Ebay subsequently “blacklisted” RT, meaning Google will no longer be allowed to place its adverts on the site.
An Ebay spokesperson said: “The placement of this advert is the result of third party programmatic algorithms and is not a deliberate placement by eBay. However, we have blacklisted Russia Today and our adverts will no longer appear on the site.”
‘There is a clear deep cynicism in the tone they have adopted towards Bill Gates and a coronavirus vaccine’
There is no suggestion that any of the brands featuring alongside this content were aware of its positioning. In each case, the adverts appeared as a result of programmatic algorithms used by Google companies.
However, Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, suggested brands should take a stand against their advertising spend inadvertently funding this sort of content.
He told Press Gazette: “In our research on alliances between digital hate movements and political actors, we find that RT crops up again and again.
“There is a clear deep cynicism in the tone they have adopted towards Bill Gates and a coronavirus vaccine which shows a callous disregard for human life and safety in favour of narrow political advantage.
“The advertisers funding this material will no doubt he horrified and we urge them to ensure they stop funding fake news.”
Craig Fagan, programme director at the Global Disinformation Index – which has published several reports highlighting how Google and other online ad providers help fund disinformation – told Press Gazette: “Disinformation is exactly these types of narratives that RT.com and others are picking up and spreading, couching them in facts and ‘reporting’ on them in one-side and biased way.
“No one benefits and in the time of a pandemic, stopping ad-funded disinformation has become a matter of life and death.
“Our recent findings show that Google is providing the lion’s share of ad service to key Covid-19 conspiracy sites – Google pays $3 out of every $4 earned in ad revenue by the disinformation sites in the GDI sample.”
An RT spokesperson said: “Perhaps there should be a warning somewhere on our Twitter page that irony* is involved and the likes of respected Press Gazette journalists could be unfortunately misled.
“Otherwise we are happy you noticed that in all the materials in question RT explicitly identifies the conspiracy theories as such.
“*Irony is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event in which what appears, on the surface, to be the case or to be expected differs radically from what is actually the case. That’s from Wiki.”
A Google spokesperson: “We have strict publisher policies that govern the content ads can run on. We specifically prohibit publishers from misrepresenting themselves or their products and have also taken an aggressive approach to Covid-19 content that causes direct user harm or spreads medical misinformation. When a page or site violates our policies, we take immediate action and remove its ability to monetise.”
It is understood that Google does not consider the content highlighted in this article as being in violation of its terms. The digital giant does regularly review such content, and last year terminated more than 1.2m publisher accounts and removed adverts from 21m web pages.