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Junk news sites using advertising and web search optimization to spread COVID-19 misinformation, finds new study

Published on
3 Aug 2020
A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), in collaboration with Oxford Information Labs (OxIL) has found that more than 60% of junk news sites are using one of the major advertising platforms help convert website traffic into income.

A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), University of Oxford, in collaboration with Oxford Information Labs (OxIL) has found that more than 60% of junk news sites are using one of the major advertising platforms (Google, Amazon) to help convert website traffic into income.

The study finds that the majority of junk news sites have strong search engine optimisation (SEO) factors, which play a key role in the proliferation of misinformation around coronavirus. SEO is an industry technique for making a website more visible in search engine results. Generally, the higher a website’s search engine rank for a search term, the greater the traffic received by the website.

In terms of SEO performance, RT (formerly Russia Today) was found to be scoring as highly as established news sources such as La Repubblica, Politico and Le Figaro. The presence of hyperlinks (backlinks) from high prestige, high trust sites such as universities and governments can inadvertently boost the online reputation and visibility in search results of untrustworthy websites, such as RT, Breitbart and Sputnik News. These backlinks help to create a circle of validation for junk news sites, by appropriating the online reputation of others.

Large advertising platforms such as Google and Amazon were found be contributing to the financial viability and success of junk news & disinformation publishers around COVID-19, by continuing to provide advertising space on well-known junk news sites. The junk news & disinformation sources actively use SEO techniques to improve their performance in search engines – that visibility generates high volumes of traffic, which can be turned into income through clicks on display ads provided by major advertising platforms.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, Doctoral Candidate, Oxford Internet Institute, said:

“It should come as no surprise that owners of junk news websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated at using search engine optimization to drive more views of their content. This is creating a vicious circle in which junk news sites that link to untrustworthy and extremist sites in turn boost the popularity of these sites.

Emily Taylor, Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, lead author of the report, added:

“The study shows us we must look at how much even the citation of junk news sites and stories on mainstream sites is actually boosting the popularity of these junk sites. There are important lessons here for government, academia and tech firms, who can all take steps to ensure they are not acting as an enablers for junk news.”

Stacie Hoffmann, Digital Policy & Cyber Security Consultant, Oxford Information Labs, added:

“This report involved gathering significant volumes of data from junk news sites and associated links. We’re hopeful that this can be of value to further, much-needed research in this area.”

Read the full report.

For more information please call 01865 287220 or email

Notes for editors

About Oxford Information Labs

Oxford Information Labs is a cyber intelligence consultancy focusing on analysis and monitoring of global policy issues and threats arising from the Internet, technical big data analysis and on delivering cyber security solutions, including website protection, network hardening, and training.