SAN FRANCISCO •The headlines are eye-catching. Melania Trump is leaving the White House! Home renovation cable star Joanna Gaines has abandoned her HGTV show and husband Chip Gaines! Televangelist Joel Osteen is leaving his wife!
None of the stories was true.
Yet as recently as late last week, they were being promoted with prominent advertisements served by Google on fact-checking sites PolitiFact and Snopes, which were created precisely to dispel such falsehoods.
According to an examination by The New York Times, the enticing headlines served as bait to draw readers to fraudulent sites that masqueraded as mainstream news sites, such as People and Vogue.
The fake news ads all worked the same way: They would display headlines at the top of the fact-checking sites which, once clicked, took readers to sites that mimicked the logos and page designs of legitimate publications.
The fake stories began with headlines and photos of the celebrities in question, but after a few sentences, they transitioned into an ad for an anti-ageing skin cream.
The fake publishers used Google's AdWords system to place the ads on websites that fit their broad parameters, although it is unclear if they specifically targeted the fact-checking sites. But that Google's systems were able to place fake news ads on websites dedicated to truth-squadding reflects how the Internet search giant continues to be used to spread misinformation.
The issue has been in the spotlight for many Internet firms, with Facebook, Twitter and Google all under scrutiny for how their automated ad systems may have been used by Russians to spread divisive, false and inflammatory messages.
The Snopes and PolitiFact ads show how broad the problem of online misinformation can be, said research scientist David Letzler at digital marketing intelligence firm Impact Radius. "Even websites whose mission is to promote accountability can inadvertently wind up getting used by snake oil salesmen," he said.
Google declined to explain the specifics of how the fake news ads appeared on the fact-checking sites. The accounts that advertised on Snopes and PolitiFact were terminated from Google's ad platform after The New York Times asked about them, according to a person with knowledge of the sites who asked to remain anonymous because the details were confidential.
"As always, when we find deceptive ad practices on our platforms, we move swiftly to take action, including suspending the advertiser account if appropriate," said Google spokesman Chi Hea Cho. "In addition, we give publishers controls so they can block specific types of ads and advertisers."
When alerted to the ads promoting untrue stories on their sites, Snopes and PolitiFact said there was little they could do.
Google sells more online advertising than any other tech firm and its AdSense, which is used by Web publishers to sell display advertising on their sites, works through automated tools. Often, advertisers are unsure where their ads are running - sometimes next to inappropriate or offensive content - and site owners do not know which ads will appear on their pages.
Snopes co-owner and vice-president Vinny Green said it had tried to filter out misleading ads from the 150 million ads it displayed on its site last month. But that goes only so far. "We have little direct oversight or control over what is being done to filter out fake news ads being served on our site," he said.
He added that the online ad ecosystem was complicit in disseminating and profiting from misinformation and that "these ad quality problems are systemic".