YouTube is making money by allowing ads to run on videos that promote fake COVID-19 treatments during the coronavirus crisis, a new report says.
The Google-owned video streaming site is running ads on videos that promote sham remedies like herbs and smoothies for the deadly illness, non-profit research initiative the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) claims.
Advertisers including Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, Facebook, Liberty Mutual Insurance and streaming startup Quibi all had ads attached to such videos – one of which is titled ‘cure coronavirus with this home remedy’.
The site is allowing ‘peddlers of disinformation’ to earn money from advertising, TTP alleges, despite promises to only allow reputable videos on the site.
Both YouTube and the content creators who have videos on the site can profit from ads.
YouTube ran ads, including some from Facebook and the Trump campaign, on videos promoting sham remedies like herbs and smoothies
Google, Facebook and other popular tech platforms have been scrambling to remove fake news and prioritise quality sources regarding COVID-19 during the pandemic, but YouTube appears to be falling short, TTP suggests.
The offending videos included those promoting quack coronavirus treatments such as dodgy and ineffective home remedies, unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C and even ‘meditative music’.
A Facebook ad allegedly appeared on a YouTube video that promised to improve viewers’ immune systems and fight off coronavirus with music that ‘improves cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves’.
TTP said a search for ‘coronavirus home remedy’ returned a video that promised to cure the serious respiratory illness with recipes for fruit and vegetables smoothies – which began with a Trump campaign ad.
The same ad was said to appear before a video discussing ’10 herbs that kill viruses and clear mucus from your lungs’, which didn’t mention coronavirus specifically but appeared in a coronavirus-related search.
Ads for US insurance company Liberty Mutual appeared before a Polish-language video that even advised viewers to not step foot in Chinese restaurants to avoid getting COVID-19.
Ads for Disney-backed streaming platform Quibi appeared before a Bengali video that claimed drinking water can prevent coronavirus infections, while e-learning platform Masterclass was advertised alongside a Hindi video that promoted burning incense and eating gooseberry-like Amla fruit and Neem leaves as remedies.
Ads for Quibi – the new short-form video platform backed by The Walt Disney Company, NBCUniversal, Viacom, and Sony Pictures Entertainment – allegedly appeared before a Bengali video that claimed that drinking water can prevent coronavirus infections
‘The findings show that Google-owned YouTube has provided economic incentives for people to create and distribute false and misleading information about the pandemic on its platform, which has virtually unrivalled reach around the globe,’ TTP said in a post on Friday.
As coronavirus began to spread in the US, YouTube initially banned advertisers from profiting from coronavirus-related videos in keeping with its ‘sensitive events’ policy.
However, in a blog post dated March 11, the policy was revealed to have been relaxed as YouTube said it applied more to short-term events like natural disasters.
‘It’s becoming clear this issue is now an ongoing and important part of everyday conversation, and we want to make sure news organisations and creators can continue producing quality videos in a sustainable way,’ it said at the time.
‘YouTube will continue to quickly remove videos that violate our policies when they are flagged, including those that discourage people from seeking medical treatment or claim harmful substances have health benefits.’
Since then, TTP said it had found the misleading videos promising cures and preventative treatments for the disease.
TTP points out that YouTube advertisers are unlikely to blame, as they target their ads based on viewer demographics and wouldn’t know where their videos were likely to appear – unless they have a partnership with a particular YouTube channel.
‘By lifting restrictions on advertising in videos about the coronavirus pandemic, YouTube has made disinformation lucrative for some unscrupulous content creators and a liability for the brands that unwittingly support them,’ TTP said.
YouTube has removed four of the offending videos after being alerted to them by the Guardian, while another three remain on the site as they are not promoting misinformation directly but offering wellness tips, a company spokesperson said.
Google is yet to respond to MailOnline’s request for comment regarding the TTP report.
YouTube has previously said that it is using its homepage to direct users to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other local authorities to help users easily find reputable updates.
WHAT ARE TECH COMPANIES DOING ABOUT COVID-19?
The social network is giving the World Health Organisation as many free ads as it needs in a bid to get accurate health information to users of the platform as clearly as possible.
It also launched the ‘Coronavirus Information Centre’ – a dedicated webpage with COVID-19 resources and advice.
This is being promoted at the top of users’ News Feeds, directing them to the latest updates and guidance from the NHS and WHO.
Facebook is also making its Workplace platform available to governments and emergency services for free in a bid to help those dealing with the coronavirus.
All government organisations globally, at a national or local level, are eligible to claim 12 months of free access to the premium tier of Workplace.
Twitter also recently resolved to delete tweets from its site that promote conspiracy theories, misleading or dangerous advice and other harmful ideas relating to coronavirus.
Tweets that deny ‘established scientific facts’ and expert guidance regarding the virus will be marked as harmful and removed, the site said in a blog post.
It gave examples of inaccurate tweets that would be deleted swiftly, including ‘people with dark skin are immune to COVID-19 due to melanin production’, ‘use aromatherapy and essential oils to prevent COVID-19’ and ‘the news about washing your hands is propaganda for soap companies, stop washing your hands!’.
Google also teamed up with WHO to launch an SOS Alert dedicated to the coronavirus, which appears at the top of search results when users type ‘coronavirus’.
The search engine is prioritising information on the virus from the WHO, including official WHO updates on the spread of the virus and how to stay safe.