Anti-disinfo portal: Ministry, SKA ads ended up on pro-Kremlin site

Screenshot clipped from Propastop's website, showing the article on the rural affairs ministry and SKA ad campaigns.
Screenshot clipped from Propastop's website, showing the article on the rural affairs ministry and SKA ad campaigns. Source: Propastop

A ministry and a state agency in Estonia recently inadvertently placed online ads on pro-Russian websites. Both cited as the reason errors on the part of the media agencies that provided the services.

The oversight came to light in an article published by the Propastop counter-misinformation page, which is staffed by volunteers from the Defense League (Kaitseliit), which said that not only had the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Social Insurance Board (SKA) advertised on Russian online media channels which toe the Kremlin line, but also "dozens" of private sector firms have done same, Propastop says (link in Estonian).

Spokespersons from both the rural affairs ministry and SKA said that the ads ended up on this page due to a fault of the media agency which they had hired to organize their campaigns – in the ministry's case a campaign promoted Estonian-produced food and in SKA's case, a campaign targeting young people who are currently neither studying nor working.

Both ads appeared on the site.

Kristin Rammus, head of communications at SKA, told ERR that: "Before the start of the campaign, we approved media spaces on various Estonian media channels, including the Google Display Network, in which case the advertisement is directed to different pages.

"Unfortunately, the agency had not checked Propastop's blacklist before the start of the campaign, which is why the page was not among the pages they excluded via Google Display," Rammus went on.

"Our biggest mistake was assuming that the agency itself understands that if it is a campaign aimed at young people living in Estonia, then ads should only be shown on Estonian channels," she added

"It is extremely embarrassing that such a turn of events could transpire. This is a teachable moment not only for us, but also for other institutions ordering campaigns, namely to always check before the start of the campaign that the advertisement (both on TV) will indeed only be displayed in trusted environments," Rammus added.

Julius Koppel, the rural affairs ministry's press advisor, told ERR that the error had been similar in their case.

"We share the same point of view with SKA that such an incident is highly disturbing. It is unfortunate that the Estonian food month advertisement ended up on such a channel. Unfortunately, our campaign /---/ is already finished and nothing can be corrected retroactively."

The media company responsible for the oversight with regard to the rural affairs ministry, Mediabroker, also issued an apology via its representative Kristjan Koll.

Koll said: "We use the Google Network to display ads on various websites around the world where our desired target group circulates. In the current situation, and also in the past, we use blacklists of approximately 6,000 pages, in order to exclude unsuitable portals."

"Unfortunately, after the last update, this page ( – ed.) has not arrived on the list. We apologize once again for this error. This website has been added to and we will no longer be advertising on it there. We have contacted the Propastop page and also explained the reasons behind the error and those responsible," Koll went on.

La Ecwador, which provided services to SKA, also apologized for and outlined what had happened.  

The agency's creative director Taavi Lehari said: "The campaign used the Google Display Network solution, which means that we did not purchase advertising opportunities directly from a specific propaganda page, but we used Google's own ad distribution tool."

"This means that different websites can offer Google banner positions on their website, where different ads are mediated by the Google Display Network. This ad also used Google's advertising solution, and although Google itself does very thorough preliminary checks on where and on which pages they display their ads, and prepare blacklists , this particular page was not on their blacklist either," Lehari went on.

Lehari added that He emphasized that displaying advertisements on different websites does not mean contacting them directly and taking an offer from them on an individual basis, adding: "That said, when setting up ads, you can discard those pages on which you do not want to display your configured ad, where we have used previous blacklists and based on our previous practice as well as the client's specific wishes to exclude them."

Propastop also carries an English-language page.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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