Google, Facebook, Apple and other technology companies that try to keep covid-19 disinformation and fraud off their own platforms are enabling their spread through online services, tools and code they offer other websites that push such content, according to a new report from Oxford University.
The 120 websites studied by the Oxford researchers support protests against government health restrictions or spread misleading information about covid – false cures, fake charities or misleading health advice. These sites use web hosting, ad-tracking services, web development tools and social media links from leading technology companies.
Some of the tools are free “widgets” – bits of computer code – that allow web designers to expand the capabilities of their sites and are used widely across the Internet, often without the companies that produce them knowing who is deploying them. Several problematic sites, for example, support financial transactions through Apple Pay, use Apple’s affiliate links or enable compatibility with Apple devices such as the iPhone, the Oxford researchers said.
Some of the content pushed by the websites using these tools and services probably would not be permitted on platforms run by several of the same top technology companies, including Facebook and Google, whose web tools were “particularly pervasive” on the sites, the report found. These and other companies have worked for months to fight scammers seeking to profit from the pandemic and disinformation that undermines the efforts of public health officials to control it.
The report, “Profiting from the Pandemic,” published this week by Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, suggests these companies could do more.
“They’ve made the first step in doing content moderation,” said Philip N. Howard, principal investigator for the project and a co-author of the report along with Oxford researcher Yung Au. “The next step is to withdraw the back-end services that enable covid misinformation and fraudulent scams.”
The analysis of 40 covid disinformation sites, for example, found nearly 2,000 “components” – a catchall term for tools or bits of code – from Google, more than 800 from Facebook and more than 360 from Apple, the report said.
Cloudflare, which provides content-delivery services and protection from some types of online attacks, had nearly 550 components on the disinformation sites, and Amazon had more than 330. GoDaddy, which provides web hosting and domain registrar services, had components on 14 of the sites pushing protests against public health restrictions.
The report does not suggest, however, that more aggressive action by these companies necessarily would prevent the covid fraud and disinformation websites from successfully operating online.
While Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon were leading sources of tools and services for the websites studied by Oxford, the largest single category of companies providing such support was “Others,” underscoring how a range of smaller companies provide similar services. If the larger companies acted against these websites, they probably could shift to smaller service providers, the Oxford report acknowledged.
“Webmasters can also opt to switch to a provider in another legal jurisdiction without too much effort,” the report said. “This implies that a more concerted effort across companies and jurisdictions may be needed for effective moderation.”
Several of the websites studied by the Oxford researchers bought ads on Facebook and others used other services from the company, including ad tracking technology.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement in response to the report, “We’ve taken aggressive steps to limit the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and connect people with reliable information,” adding that the company will “reject ads with debunked claims as well as ads that discourage people from getting vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines.”
Google spokespeople did not respond to queries seeking comment about the Oxford report.
GoDaddy said it routinely takes action against websites that seek to take advantage of the covid-19 pandemic. “Regarding protest sites and sites with alleged disinformation, we support a free and open Internet, but we do not allow and will act against any site that promotes or incites violence,” Dan Race, the company’s vice president for public relations, said in a statement. “We have also removed sites associated with disinformation at the request of public health authorities.”
A spokeswoman for Cloudflare, Leigh Ann Benicewicz, declined to comment, as did Amazon Web Services spokeswoman Kristin Brown. Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock declined to reply on the record to a request for comment.