How Harvard Business School and the US government have been unwittingly funding Russian propaganda websites

Sputnik News is a “Russian state-controlled news agency established by the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya with a headquarters in Moscow”. It is ranked at ~900 by the Alexa ranking of most frequently visited websites. According to Media Bias Fact Check, Sputnik News is often accused of reporting ‘fake news, spreading misinformation and being a “Kremlin Propaganda Machine” by European and American media outlets’. In 2017, an FBI investigation promoted Sputnik News to register as a Foreign Agent with the US Department of Justice. In January 2019, Facebook removed several hundred pages linked to Sputnik News for inauthentic behavior. In Oct. 2017, Twitter announced that it would no longer allow advertisements from Sputnik.

Inspired by work done by the Global Disinformation Index, I decided to peruse Sputnik News and record my ads a few times over the past month to see which, if any brands, were paying Sputnik to place ads on their website. 

During that time, I recorded the following brands buy ads on Sputnik News:

This is likely due to these brands' use of automated ad placement software services.


Harvard Business School (bottom-right) and Staples (top-center) ads appearing on Sputnik News

The context - digital display advertising

Companies, brands, non-profits, government agencies, and schools can all utilize digital display ad networks to promote awareness or acquire more customers. Ad tech services such as the Google Ads Display Network make it relatively easy to deliver targeted messages to individuals browsing specific news or social media websites.

There are a number of ways in which advertisers can work with publishers to place their ad content. One involves a direct business relationship, wherein an advertiser (like Adidas) reaches out directly to a publisher (New York Times) and signs an agreement for their ads to appear on In the most popular approach, advertisers use third party tools or work with middlemen to outsource and automate the placement of digital ads. In this case, instead of specifying one or two specific domains where the advertiser wants their ads to appear, they can delegate high-level requirements, such as “Show our ads on news websites or sports-related blogs''. Advertisers can also choose to target their ads based on demographic, behavioral, or other user specific criteria, such as whether a given user visited a specific advertiser’s website before.

However, the use of automated display ad placement services can expose brands to certain reputational and financial risks.

The dangers of programmatic display advertising

Automated ad placements, or programmatic media buy, refers to the use of digital tools to buy and sell online ad placements in an automated fashion. With the use of programmatic advertising, an entity like Harvard Business School can defer to a series of algorithms to figure out where it makes sense to show their ads to maximize conversions, such as enrollment in an online learning degree. Publishers like the New York Times or Sputnik News get paid a cut for having an ad impression served to a user browsing their website.

Programmatic display advertising is a $46 billion industry. 82.5% of all US digital display ad spend is allocated through the use of programmatic advertising (as opposed to manually configured ad placements).

While ads generate millions of dollars worth of revenue for publishers and help journalists and bloggers earn revenue, they can also be used to also generate millions of dollars for publishers promoting propaganda, hate, and conspiracy theories.

Entire social media campaigns have arisen to combat the issue of advertisers paying for their ads to appear on domains pushing controversial content. Companies like DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science and WhiteOps also provide technology solutions for online media verification and brand safety, though some skeptics question the ability of technology centric solutions to eliminate these problems.

Studies have shown that companies and brands  risk damaging their reputation by allowing  their ads to show up alongside controversial content.

Harvard’s retargeting campaign

In Harvard’s case, it is likely due to the use of retargeting cookies. A quick scan of the landing page on shows that the website sets several dozen cookies in the user’s browser upon loading, and according to Ghostery, uses approximately 25 different tracking scripts. Some of these cookies may be used to show ads to users as they browse on different web pages, including Sputnik News.

Name Category Requests
DoubleClick Advertising 1
ConversionRuler Advertising 2
Google AdWords Conversion Advertising 1
Acuity Ads Advertising 2
Drawbridge Advertising 1
Bounce Exchange Advertising 4
LinkedIn Ads Advertising 0
Twitter Advertising Advertising 1
Facebook Custom Audience Advertising 2
Google Dynamic Remarketing Advertising 1
Twitter Conversion Tracking Advertising 1
Kaltura Audio/Video Player 133
Olark Customer Interaction 11
Hubspot Forms Customer Interaction 1
Google Tag Manager Essential 1
Google Analytics Site Analytics 1
HubSpot Site Analytics 5
Hotjar Site Analytics 4
LinkedIn Analytics Site Analytics 1
Twitter Analytics Site Analytics 0
GA Audiences Site Analytics 1
Convert Site Analytics 1
Facebook Connect Social Media 2
Twitter Button Social Media 2
Twitter Syndication Social Media 1

List of tracking and ad retargeting scripts identified on Harvard Business School's website (, using Ghostery

When a user lands on Sputnik News, the website loads a number of third party tracking and advertising scripts, including those of the Google Display Ad Network. This is the means through which ads such as those of Harvard or American Express are shown on the domain, and they may use the retargeting cookies to inform which ad is served. Below is a snapshot of advertising network calls on Sputnik News landing page using Fou Analytics:

Analysis of ad javascript activity on Sputnik News using Fou Analytics

Analysis of ad javascript activity on Sputnik News using Fou Analytics, illustrating how the webpage loads ads through Google's domain

When you click on the “Why this Ads?” info modal on the HBS advertisement, it reveals 

Harvard Business School on Sputnik News - Why this Ad

Google "Why this ad?" info modal description of why a given HBS ad was shown

You can try to re-create this observation on your own browser. Open a new browser window and make sure to clear all your cookies. Then navigate to the Harvard Business School website and click around a few pages to pick up retargeting cookies. Next, navigate to the Sputnik News website and browse around a few pages - you should see the HBS advertisement show up. Note that Harvard may stop this campaign in the near future or they may be restricting ad content to users who are geo-located within the United States, so if your IP address is somewhere else, you may not see this ad.

What to do

Did the heads of marketing at Harvard Business School, USVA, FEMA, Square, Staples, American Express, Lending Tree, or Adidas  intentionally show their ads on Sputnik News? If placing ads on this website is not part of their marketing strategy, then it’s important that they monitor their media buy supply chain as well as the third party exchanges or media agencies working on behalf of their brands. Showing their ads on controversial websites may lead to negative consumer sentiment and hurt their brands’ reputations by association.

Take away points

  1. HBS, Staples, American Express, US Dept. of Veteran Affairs, Staples are funding foreign propaganda websites by paying for programmatic digital display advertising on those websites. They can potentially mitigate this issue by blacklisting those domains in their ad campaign tools

  2. Use of retargeting advertising cookies can lead to ads following users to less reputable websites, and harm brand reputation

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