Balkan Study Finds Global Brands Spend Billions Advertising On Misinformation Sites

By Georgi Gotev

(EurActiv) — One of the larger advertisers in Bulgaria announced that it would stop “cooperation” with a news website singled out as “problematic” ahead of the publication on Tuesday (5 December) of a report according to which major global brands are sending $2.6 billion to misinformation websites each year.

The report “Defunding Disinformation in the Balkans: How International Brands Support Russia’s Agenda” by Balkan Free Media Initiative, a Brussels-based NGO and Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), a Belgrade-based civil society organisation, was made public on Tuesday.

Advanced copies were sent to significant advertisers, which are mentioned in the research.

The report focuses on Serbia, a candidate country for EU membership, and Bulgaria, an EU member state considered particularly vulnerable to disinformation.

The Bulgarian news website Blitz is singled out in the report as a “problem outlet” next to two other websites, Pogled Info and Trud.

“Since the start of the war, these outlets were found to consistently publish pro-Kremlin disinformation, including that Ukrainian armed forces are deliberately killing civilians, that Ukraine is a Nazi country, and that Bulgaria will become a forced participant in the war”, the report said.

A spokesperson for German company Bosch, which had previously advertised with Blitz, said that currently, no Bosch campaigns were running in the outlet. He explained that Bosch uses local agencies to place advertisements on platforms that are chosen based on criteria such as high reach and the profile of the target audience.

Lidl, the German international discount retailer chain that operates over 12,000 stores in every member state of the EU and Serbia, announced it will end any cooperation with Blitz in the next financial year. Lidl is one of the major advertisers in Bulgaria.

The authors of the report, who aim to de-fund misinformation news outlets from advertisements, argue that ads from well-known brands send signals of legitimacy to viewers of the disinformation.

Among the photo material in the report are screenshots with disinformation articles, next to which appear ads from major brands.

An article by Blitz with ant-Semitic undertones (“The envoy to Soros will issue an ultimatum to Radev”) published ahead of a visit to Bulgaria from the director of the US Office of Sanctions Coordination, James O’Brien, appears in one of the screenshots accompanied by a Lidl ad. Similar articles carry the logos of other major brands.

The analysis of advertising data, the report said, shows that prominent global brands are spending hundreds of millions of euros on advertising with outlets in the Balkans that spread disinformation on topics including Kremlin narratives linked to the invasion of Ukraine, malign pro-government propaganda, attacks on civil society, independent media, and political opposition, and narratives undermining democratic values.

A joint analysis by NewsGuard and Comscore quoted in the report found that major global brands are sending $2.6 billion to misinformation websites each year.

Regarding Serbia, disinformation is predominantly in mainstream media, including leading TV stations and newspapers, which receive significant advertising revenues from global brands.

Conversely, disinformation in Bulgaria is less of an issue in mainstream media and is promoted more widely through websites.

In Serbia, advertising, especially from non-Serbian brands, is a crucial funding source for media. The report referred to the market analysis firm Nielsen, which found that major companies such as Coca-Cola, Lidl, Delhaize, and Procter and Gamble spent €1.02 billion on advertising in Serbia.

TV massively dominates the spending with €989.6 million dedicated to five television stations, and only €31.4 million allocated to the print media.

The report focused on TV Pink and TV Happy, considered among the primary sources of disinformation in Serbia on mainstream media channels.

Both TV Pink and TV Happy are highly sympathetic to the government of President Aleksandar Vučić. According to research from CRTA, they dedicate over 95% of their news coverage to favourable reporting of the government and the ruling SNS party interlocutors while marginalising and attacking the opposition.

TV Pink received 45% of the total advertising expenditure, while TV Happy received 10%.

In one screenshot included in the report, Serbian journalist and regular contributor to TV Happy, Đuro Bilbija, is quoted as saying that Russia is fighting against “the zombified, Hitler’s European Union, which is trying to get revenge for 1945”, the picture being illustrated with ads of Lidl and the Dutch-Belgian group Delhaize.

Antoinette Nikolova, director of Balkan Free Media Initiative, told Euractiv that the response from major advertisers when they were approached for comments was that they use local agencies for advertising distribution.

“Our recommendation remains to conduct enhanced due diligence on media outlets and support trustworthy sources through advertising,” she insisted.

“German companies Lidl and Bosch responded to us, stopping their funds for one of the most-read tabloids that disseminated brutal manipulations. This signals a sensitivity to the issue,” she said.