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April 13, 2022updated 07 Nov 2023 5:42am

Google ad pause on Ukraine war content must ensure trusted publishers not ‘unintentionally impacted’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Google’s advertising pause on certain content surrounding the war in Ukraine has been described as a “positive move” for disarming fake news profiteers and propagandists.

However there have been warnings that the tech giant must ensure legitimate publishers are not “unintentionally impacted” by vague or automated policies implemented through its advertising software – and that Google should not be effectively handed “editorial control”.

Google said: “Due to the war in Ukraine, we will pause ads containing content that exploits, dismisses, or condones the war.” This expansion of its existing policy on the incitement of violence and content denying the existence of tragic events includes ads on websites, apps and Youtube channels.

Reuters reported that it covers “claims that imply victims are responsible for their own tragedy or similar instances of victim blaming, such as claims that Ukraine is committing genocide or deliberately attacking its own citizens,” citing an email from Google to publishers. In response, Russia banned Google News from the country.

Richard Reeves, managing director at the Association of Online Publishers which counts most of the UK’s national news brands as members, said it was good Google was stopping people from profiting from fake news.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has escalated digital misinformation to new heights, which is adding greater confusion to an already devastating conflict,” he said.

“The digital ecosystem has a significant responsibility to address harmful content and curb its reach, so any news of companies using their market position to ensure no one prospers from fake news should be seen as a positive move.”

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However Reeves warned against the sort of blunt keyword blocking that could affect legitimate publishers producing factual, verified news about the war.

In the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic many advertisers added coronavirus-related terms to their keyword blocklists in an abundance of caution towards brand safety, keeping their campaigns away from negative stories. This meant publishers struggled to generate much-needed revenue even though they were seeing record audiences.

The International News Media Association described the current situation as “déjà vu” and warned there “seems to be little evidence advertised brands will be harmed by advertising around any news stories (providing, of course, the messaging in the ads is not inflammatory or controversial) and that the effect ultimately is that it hampers and even defunds the role of quality journalism in a democratic society”.

Reeves said: “It is encouraging to see restrictions being put in place in an effort to diminish propaganda in Russia and stop the spread of false information. But we must also ensure that during this time, ethical publishers, who are providing much-needed truthful information, are not being unintentionally impacted by the use of vague keyword blocking or increased restrictions.

“As an industry we must continue to work together to strike a balance between diverting spend away from inaccurate content, but also safeguarding the future of the premium publishers that are striving to provide readers with credible information.”

Reach’s advertising arm claimed last year it had come up with “irrefutable” evidence that advertising next to violent or otherwise negative stories had no negative impact for brands as long as they are on trusted, well-known brands.

Press Gazette understands that although Google allows advertisers to stop their campaigns from appearing on specific websites or next to certain topics, it warns them that using keywords or entire news categories can exclude vast amounts of content.

Owen Meredith, chief executive of the News Media Association which represents the UK’s national and regional press, said the issue showed the case for regulation of the tech giants via the Digital Markets Unit which sits within the Competition and Markets Authority and is currently awaiting statutory power.

Meredith said: “Journalism from trusted reliable sources, which is funded by online advertising, continues to play a vital role in explaining and chronicling the horrific war in Ukraine. Journalists are risking their lives on the front line to tell the story.

“Advertising is vitally important for funding such quality journalism and this revenue stream must be protected to ensure that important work continues. Measures designed to target bad actors seeking to spread misinformation about the war are laudable, but must not put editorial control in the hands of Google’s algorithms as a consequence.

“The best way to tackle this issue and the enormous power wielded by the tech platforms in the digital advertising space is to bring forward the legislation giving the Digital Markets Unit the powers it needs to level the playing field between news publishers and the tech platforms and bring greater transparency to an opaque system early in next Parliamentary session.”

Sivan Tafla, chief executive at publishing ad tech solutions provider Total Media Solutions, said Google’s policy ought to boost revenue for legitimate publishers but needs work to ensure it functions “as intended”.

“Diligent and verifiable news has never been more important, and with this move, Google is reasserting its commitment to stamp out misinformation while cutting off revenue to propagandist or fraudulent outlets,” she said. “This in turn will reward those publishers willing to put time and resources into truthful reporting.

“This expansion of Google’s existing policies to stop content that incites violence and denies tragic events benefiting from ad revenue will help reassure brands that their digital advertising spend will not end up next to undesirable content. That said, there is still a need for regulation and management of this policy for it to continue to work as intended.”

A Google spokesperson told Press Gazette: “We can confirm that we’re taking additional steps to clarify, and in some instances expand our monetisation guidelines as they relate to the war in Ukraine.

“This builds on our current restrictions on Russian state-funded media, as well as our ongoing enforcement against content that incites violence or denies the occurrence of tragic events. This does not apply to broader news coverage of the war.”

Google has also temporarily paused ads from serving to users based in Russia and suspended ads from appearing globally for advertisers based in Russia.

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