A network of right-wing news websites is spending millions of dollars on Google ads featuring clickbait, single-question polls such as, “IS TRUMP IMPEACHMENT A WITCH-HUNT?” and “Should Hilary [sic] Clinton Finally Be Brought To Justice? VOTE NOW!”
In bold text, the polls urge people to “make your voice heard,” but make no mention of what the resulting data will be used for. That’s because it’s not the respondents’ answers that the polls are really designed to obtain — it’s their emails, which will later be spammed with horrifying health misinformation alongside pricey miracle cures.
After clicking on the Google ads — dozens of which have been viewed more than 10 million times each — people are directed to landing pages to cast their votes in the polls. In order to do so, they need to enter an email address. Fine print at the bottom of the page states that by voting, they’ll also automatically be signed up for a “free” email subscription.
The Google ads are part of a massive email-harvesting scheme uncovered by Engadget. At the helm of the operation is an obscure conservative news site called Conservative Buzz and its parent company, DedicatedEmails.com, which describes itself as an “email newsletter publishing firm reaching millions of highly engaged 55+ men and woman [sic] each month.”
Conservative Buzz is among the 10 highest-spending political advertisers on Google. Since May 2018, it has paid the platform nearly $4.6 million to run more than 4,800 ads with partisan polls that seize on political tensions to lure people in and get them to hand over their contact information. It’s how the site monetizes this information that’s truly disturbing.
After voting in Conservative Buzz polls from a newly created email account, HuffPost started receiving no less than 20 emails per day directly from Conservative Buzz and several other little-known pro-Trump news sites, including Capital Hill Daily, Patriot Buzz, Conservative Minute and Political News Alerts. The latter notes on its website that it is owned by Dedicated Emails; the others make no such disclosures but have featured the Conservative Buzz logo in their digital communications and list the same Nevada mailing address.
Many of the emails contain blatant medical misinformation targeted at seniors, warning that they’re likely suffering from a variety of serious diseases and conditions — Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, mystery illnesses — while hawking the alleged cures.
One email marketing $80 laxative shipments warns that there is “a toxic waste dump in your belly” that can cause “chronic pains (especially in your joints and back) ... and, ultimately, premature death.” Another email promoting an event called the “Confidential Cures Summit” (at which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was reportedly a speaker) cautions: “You have less than 11 months before the most powerful disease cure ever discovered is outlawed.” A third email suggests that it holds the secret for “reversing diabetes” in just “5 mins.” Yet another email warns of “a DEADLY CRISIS that is sweeping America, killing seniors at a relentless pace.”
The sites’ emails often appear to be sponsored by third-party groups, indicating that Conservative Buzz and Dedicated Emails are profiting through scammy sponsored content — essentially renting out access to the emails they’ve harvested through their multimillion-dollar Google ad campaign. It’s unclear just how lucrative this scheme is, though Conservative Buzz’s sustained investment into Google ads suggests there is a high return.
Among Conservative Buzz’s frequent email sponsors are the Health Sciences Institute, a company known for pushing medical misinformation, and the Oxford Club, which pushes get-rich-quick schemes, to con consumers into buying their products.
At least two of Conservative Buzz’s Google ads, which have both been removed from Google’s public gallery, featured polls that redirected to a video peddling a supposed covered-up cancer cure. Conservative Buzz did not respond to requests for an interview. The email address listed on Dedicated Emails’ website was defunct.
Google told HuffPost that Conservative Buzz’s ads comply with its advertising policies.
“All ads that run on our platforms have to comply with our ads policies. We enforce our policies, and where ads are found to breach them, we take action,” a spokesperson said. “We are committed to bringing greater transparency to political advertising, and for political advertisers, we have additional requirements, such as verification of the advertiser, a paid-for-by disclosure and inclusion in our political ads Transparency Report.”
Conservative Buzz’s website features an email subscription sign-up bar and little else. The other right-wing news pages’ sites are littered with pop-up ads and a series of hyperpartisan articles with sensational headlines attacking many of the president’s most outspoken critics.
HuffPost identified two other conservative news publishers that are running similar operations through Google’s ad platform to fearmonger and capitalize on disinformation.
Salem Web Network, a Christian web conglomerate that owns Townhall and other right-wing media outlets, has spent more than $412,000 on Google ads featuring the same style polls. Multiple ads show pictures of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) alongside the question, “Are These the 3 Most Dangerous People in America?” People who vote are then instantly redirected to a separate website that compares those politicians to stage 4 cancer in a rambling 6,500-word pitch for an $89 “Socialism Survival Kit.”
Salem’s polls automatically register voters to receive emails from Townhall and its sponsors, which have included conspiratorial warnings of imminent financial collapse and promises of secret stock market “hacks.” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have also sponsored messages through Salem’s email network.
After people vote in Salem’s polls, pop-ups appear on their screens urging them to subscribe to content from conservative propaganda groups Judicial Watch and PragerU. Several of Salem’s Google ads have also been viewed more than 10 million times each.
Newsmax, a large conservative media firm with web and broadcast news programs, has spent close to $1.4 million on Google ads. Nearly all of them feature Trump-related polls that are also used to quietly sign people up for emails — typically around five per day. Most of these emails are news alerts that contain deceptive sponcon packaged to appear like embedded news articles, such as several recent plugs for a $50 “‘Fountain of Youth’ Drink.”
On its website, Newsmax claims that it has more than 6 million email subscribers, including “information-hungry baby boomer readers.” It also claims that it adheres to “highest email best practices” and “never sends spam.”
Neither Salem nor Newsmax responded to requests for comment.
Like Conservative Buzz, Newsmax has run numerous ads for the Health Sciences Institute in its emails. One such ad, tucked into an email alert sent out on Monday evening, links to a video falsely claiming a natural cure for cancer was found “in the heart of the Brazilian jungle,” but that members of the political elite and their cronies have been hiding it from the American public for their own financial gain. The video promotes a “book of secrets” that supposedly reveals hidden treatments for a number of fatal illnesses.
Another email that Newsmax sent twice in one week this month declares that “Global Warming Is a Lie.” It links to a page shilling a bundled book, investment guide and “survival guide” that purportedly reveal the “top secret” truth about a “major coverup” — and more — all for an automatically recurring fee of $109.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.