Search giant Google has been identified as a major enabler for the proliferation of disinformation, or "fake news", websites.
Its advertising platform, Google Adsense, provides several of these websites with the means to make money using the adverts it displays on their sites.
Despite claiming extensive policies governing the use of its platform, it appears Google is either unable, or unwilling, to adequately address the abuse of its platform.
Fake News Exposed: A News24 investigation
After Coronation Fund Managers' had their advertising agency report one such website to Google, the website continued using Google Ads for another month.
It was only after News24 started asking Coronation - and several other big-name brands - to explain the presence of their brands on the website that Google acted and removed the site from their network.
Yet, less than two weeks later, Google had re-enrolled the same website back onto its advertising network, despite initially indicating that it was removed for violating its advertising policies.
Not that kind of branding
During a bigger investigation into the people behind the creation and distribution of fake news, News24 identified several well-known brands adverting on these websites.
The likes of ABSA, Coronation, Mercedes-Benz, and even News24 sister companies Spree and Superbalist were identified on the websites.
These companies denied any knowledge of the adverts and blamed the California-based Google for the placement of their adverts on the site.
READ Exposed: How corporates are funding fake news
Mercedes-Benz South Africa's Thato Mntambo said: "The adverts in question are not [direct placements], but appear to be distributed via the Google Display Network (GDN). Simply put, GDN serves as a network of websites run by Google Ads, reaching over 90% of internet users worldwide."
Bonnie Cooper, head of marketing at Roman's Pizza echoed these sentiments. "As advertisers, we make use of the tools provided to us by Google to create our campaigns and ensure that our banners are served on content which is appropriate to our audience. We rely upon Google to vet the inventory on our behalf. While the system works well, it is not fool-proof, as this vetting process is carried out by algorithms and the purchase of inventory is a programmatic process."
Old Mutual chief communications officer Tabby Tsengiwe said: "However, despite the use of blacklisting and other strategic tools, the challenge is ongoing, given the proliferation of fake news websites and the fact that Google's advertising inventory makes the uncharted distribution of ads possible."
Nando's Su-Lise Tessendorf-Louw, general manager: brand and communication, said: "We use Google Display Network to display advertising programmatically which is designed to target the right audience, at the right place and the right time. These display sites don't target where adverts are placed, but rather target the individual user, so unfortunately sometimes adverts do appear on unintended sites due to this targeting methodology."
The companies were unanimous in their condemnation of fake news, and were adamant that they were unaware of the appearance of their advertisements on the website.
The claims by these companies that they were unaware are not far-fetched if one considers the manner in which the adverts were placed.
The adverts identified by News24 were placed using Google's Adsense.
Adsense is a programmatic advertising platform, which uses targeted keywords to display the adverts most likely to make an impression on a user.
Its effectiveness lies in the way in which it can dynamically display different adverts to different users, depending on their specific browsing habits and preferences.
Google in turn takes a cut of the advertising revenue paid by advertisers for facilitating the placement of the ads on the site, and acts as a broker between advertisers seeking an audience, and websites seeking to monetise their content.
As a result, local companies which were using Google Adsense had little control over where their advertisement ended up being displayed.
Despite citing several safeguards, ranging from blacklisted websites to category filters, the brands still could not prevent Google from displaying their adverts on the dubious websites.
Searching for Google
News24 approached Google for comment, but immediately encountered difficulties in finding their contact details.
Google's South African presence is limited to a physical address in Johannesburg, with no phone number nor email address.
Attempts to engage Luke McKend, Google's country manager for South Africa, via Twitter also went unanswered.
News24 eventually resorted to Google's local brand managers on August 30, 2018, after attempts to engage them directly were unsuccessful. Despite several follow-ups and deadline extensions, no response was forthcoming.
At the same time, News24 submitted questions to the brands identified on the website.
It was only on September 21, 2018, after we had made contact with several of the big brands whose adverts were placed on the sites using Adsense, that we were approached by Google.
Included among the companies contacted was Coronation Fund Managers, represented by their advertising agents Dentsu Aegis.
Unbeknownst to News24, Coronation had already reported the same website as "fake news" to Google on August 20, some 10 days before our first questions were sent.
Google told Coronation that the website would be investigated, but the website continued displaying Google adverts.
"In response to your questions below, Dentsu Aegis reported the site to Google a while ago, before the enquiry was sent to Coronation - we raised this with Google on the 20th August 2018. Their response was that they take brand safety very seriously and will be investigating this matter further immediately," Dentsu Aegis said.
The Google adverts on HINNews were also removed the very same day.
According to a Google spokesperson, each website is required to meet certain eligibility criteria before being granted access to the Google Adsense network.
It also claimed to use both automated systems and manual reviews to determine a website's eligibility for their network, with hundreds of engineers, data analysts and "Trust & Safety Specialists" that assist Google in the fight against bad ads and bad publishers online.
A Google spokesperson told News24 that it allowed users to report websites creating fake news.
"We work to prevent ads appearing against inappropriate content through a combination of technical algorithms and human review. We also encourage people to let us know when they see sites that they have concerns about that may be in violation of our policies. They can do so through our online form."
Yet despite these safeguards, many of these websites were still enrolled for Google Adsense. Publicly available records show, for example, that the HINNews website was making use of Adsense since as far back as May 2016.
Google would not explain how HINNews.com was allowed to advertise using the Google Adsense platform since May 2016, claiming it does not comment on individual websites.
For the same reason, they would also not be drawn on whether the website was reported to them prior to our questions.
Because the site was found to be in breach of their policies, Google terminated its Adsense-based adverts to the website in line with these policies.
News24 verified that Google had terminated its Adsense adverts to the site on September 21, 2018.
However, HINNews' advertising exile was short-lived.
On October 2, 2018, less than two weeks after Google told News24 it had removed HINNews from its network of websites, the disinformation site was again using Google Ads to advertise on its website.
In response to our follow-up questions, Google's spokesperson told News24 that the re-enrolment of the website had been an error.
After investigating the website, HINNews was initially removed from their advertiser network after Google determined it was in breach of its Adsense policies.
In reaction to this ban, HINNews lodged an appeal.
The appeal was upheld by Google, resulting in the reappearance of Google adverts on the website. According to Google, the website "slipped through a very minute crack", which resulted in the turnaround.
Google confirmed that the adverts had been removed from the website again after News24's enquiries.