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A voice booms over dramatic music and footage of mass graves: “You’ve been lied to about the coronavirus,” it cautions. “Will you have the knowledge you need to be a hero to your family? Or will you panic and wind up just another body that loved ones are afraid to bury?”
The video, titled “Military Source Exposes Shocking TRUTH About Coronavirus,” baselessly warns of a secret government cover-up surrounding COVID-19, and is filled with increasingly brazen falsehoods — all to peddle a course on becoming “coronavirus-proof.”
It’s one of many dangerous scams reaching millions of people amid the global pandemic, and a blind spot in Google’s sweeping crackdown on virus-related disinformation. The groups circulating these hoaxes are no small-fry hucksters: They are among the platform’s biggest political advertisers.
Right-wing news outlets including Newsmax, Townhall and Conservative Buzz have been quietly dispersing the virus-themed marketing materials through sponsored posts in their email newsletters. These third-party ads are often disguised to look like actual news articles, and the newsletters reach far beyond the outlets’ own readerships — thanks in large part to a covert email harvesting enterprise directly involving Google.
It works like this: The news outlet runs a Google ad featuring a clickbait poll such as, “Trump vs Biden 2020? Vote Here.” To vote, people must enter their email addresses, which will then be spammed with bogus coronavirus treatments, survival guides and so on. This has been going on for weeks, and the messaging is often terrifying and factually inaccurate.
Newsmax is one of the top-spending political advertisers on Google, where its email-harvesting polls are sometimes viewed in excess of 10 million times each. It has employed a similar strategy on Facebook, and has paid the platforms a total of more than $2.5 million.
On its website, Newsmax boasts that it has more than 6 million newsletter subscribers, most of whom are “information-hungry baby boomer readers.” Lately, it has been hammering them with sponsored content warning of financial ruin and death while hawking COVID-19 inspired stock market hacks, a book promising “surefire” infection protection, and even an immunity-boosting “miracle” mushroom from Japan. It sent out the government conspiracy video in an email alert on Wednesday titled, “Virus Plan: 50,000 Graves.”
The firm behind the Japanese mushroom post is the Health Sciences Institute (HSI) — a group that’s notorious for pushing medical misinformation. The Federal Trade Commission is already suing HSI’s parent company, Agora Financial, for allegedly targeting seniors with unsupported claims about a 28-day cure for Type 2 diabetes.
A former longtime Agora employee who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons told HuffPost that “probably 100%” of Agora’s advertising is done through outside newsletters, because most major social media sites have refused to run the company’s own ads. But even without direct Google ad space, Agora is still strategically leveraging the platform’s massive reach to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis.
“The Agora people know exactly how Newsmax and other sites use clickbait Google ads to build up their [email distribution lists],” which means a larger audience for Agora’s content, the former employee said. And by advertising through newsletters, Agora can “make the messaging more aggressive and fear-mongering” than what could run on Google.
This indirect advertising approach also allows grifters to escape public scrutiny for the claims spread through their promotional materials; many Google ads are cataloged through the platform’s public ad library, making them accessible to journalists and watchdogs.
A short time after HuffPost contacted Agora to seek comment for this article, HSI wiped all mentions of the Japanese mushroom from its website. Agora claimed that HSI’s webpage detailing the mushroom’s alleged benefits, including “some anti-cancer effects,” originally promoted an alternative medicine report and book.
However, Newsmax and Conservative Buzz newsletters link to that now-empty page using alarmist text specifically relating to the virus, including, “Click here to see the disturbing truth about the coronavirus (that they’re not telling us.)” Agora declined to answer almost all of HuffPost’s questions, including who wrote the newsletters’ ad copy.
“After a few days, we decided to stop promoting that report/book,” it said as part of a lengthy statement. “We were uncomfortable with the idea that it could be seen as an attempt to capitalize on a tragic situation.”
Conservative Buzz has spent more than $4.3 million to run 4,567 Google ads, many of which have been viewed as many as 10 million times each. Most, if not all, feature clickbait polls designed to procure people’s emails. Its newsletter sponsors have been exploiting panic over COVID-19 to promote the Japanese mushroom, the immunity course, face masks, “bank failure” kits and even precious metals — often while using hysterical language and making unsupported claims about the products’ abilities.
Townhall’s parent company, Salem Web Network, has spent nearly $450,000 on Google ads, all 119 of which include polls that automatically sign voters up for Townhall’s newsletter. In Thursday’s edition, a Townhall sponsor warned seniors that the virus was “hemorrhaging” their retirement funds, and urged them to buy its investment guide “before it’s too late.”
Newsmax, Conservative Buzz and Salem Web Network did not respond to requests for comment.
HuffPost first wrote about this email-harvesting scheme in January — warning that some of Google’s major political advertisers were buying ads to boost their newsletter subscriber counts, then inundating those subscribers with sponsored emails containing harmful medical hoaxes, including supposed cures for cancer and other deadly diseases. Google did not take action at the time, noting that the actual ads and landing pages complied with its rules.
The company’s position has not changed.
“All ads that run on our platforms have to comply with our ads policies. If we find ads that violate these policies, we remove them,” said a Google spokesperson. “We are committed to bringing greater transparency to political advertising, and for political advertisers, we have additional requirements, such as verification of the advertiser, a paid-for-by disclosure and inclusion in our political ads Transparency Report.”
Tech giants are working in stride to tackle the coronavirus crisis. For its part, Google has set up a 24-hour incident response team to engage with the World Health Organization, and is giving the group free advertising credit. Google is also granting free access to some of its video-conferencing services to make it easier for people to work remotely, among other measures. Most importantly, it’s working to promote authoritative sources while reducing the spread of false information.
But when faced with obstacles, fraudsters adapt. And at a time when the public needs reliable information perhaps more than ever, the far-reaching spread of COVID-19 scams in newsletters that are massively amplified by email harvesting through Google ads demonstrates a critical lapse in the company’s response.