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10 major firms posted ads on ‘hoax’ website

At least 10 major companies posted their ads on a curated content website considered to be the source of unsubstantiated rumors that spread across Japan regarding the U.S. presidential election last year, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.


Social media posts questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. election were observed to trend widely in Japanese in the wake of the election.


The companies explained they had been unaware of the mechanism behind the placement of the digital ads, which were automatically distributed to numerous websites without the company’s specifying where they should be posted, and said that the appearance of their ads on such sites was “inappropriate.”


Some of the affected firms said they have contacted the advertising company to ask that their ads be taken down.


The website in question is one of a breed of content curation sites that trawls the internet for frequently uncorroborated content and reproduces it with an attention-catching headline. The site boasts an influential following with over 100,000 subscribers on Twitter.


During the U.S. presidential election season, the site was flooded with disinformation, parroting claims that “the culprit behind the fraudulent vote counts has been identified” and “Biden built an entire organization to orchestrate voter fraud.”


Unsubstantiated posts continued to appear during the novel coronavirus pandemic, with the site amplifying rumors that “hospital beds will soon be overrun by foreign nationals,” and falsely claiming that foreign nationals accounted for 40% of Japan’s COVID-19 cases.


The site’s 60-year-old operator told The Yomiuri Shimbun in January that the purpose of the site was to generate advertising revenue through page views; the more views a site receives, the more advertising revenue it earns.


When The Yomiuri Shimbun examined ads displayed on the site in February, ads from at least 10 major companies, including a bank, automobile, home appliance, and beverage manufacturers, electric power and railroad companies, and a nationwide cram school operator, were found to have been posted on the site.


In the system, known as “programmatic advertising,” companies have limited control over where the ads actually appear, although they can specify target age demographics and interests.


Facilitated by online distribution companies such as Google and Yahoo, advertisements are automatically placed according to the search history of visitors to various websites. In some cases, a single advertisement could potentially match with tens of thousands of websites.


Advertising companies struggle to keep ahead of websites of this nature, with some compiling lists of inappropriate sites to block in advance. Although the curated site in question was included on such a blacklist, the advertising firms contracted by the 10 companies are not believed to have taken preventive filtering measures.


Eight of the 10 firms pulled their ads from the problematic site after learning about the issue from The Yomiuri Shimbun.


“This could end up hurting our brand image,” a beverage manufacturer said, and a cram school operator said,

“[Such sites] do not align with our company’s responsibility to convey accurate knowledge.”


The remaining two companies also said that they are working to ensure that their ads do not appear on such sites in the future, but would not comment on their handling of individual cases.

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