To fight disinformation, follow the money—and the ads

The two women behind Check My Ads came to the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin to talk up what might seem like the economic equivalent of pushing back the ocean with a broom: defunding disinformation.

“We believe the biggest crisis of our generation is solvable,” said Nandini Jammi, cofounder of Check My Adsin a panel Saturday. The nonprofit organizes campaigns to unplug disinformation merchants from the advertising revenue that keeps them in business—one ad exchange at a time.

“When I say the disinformation economy, it’s possible that your first thought is of Facebook,” added the other half of Check My Ads, cofounder Claire Atkin. But, apparently, that’s not where people who lie about the pandemic, election integrity and more, make their money: “They make money when users of Facebook click on the links and go to their websites, where [the users] meet half a dozen or so ad exchanges waiting to serve them ads.”

The pair created Check My Ads, funded by grants and individual donations, to formalize the crowdsourced activism of Sleeping Giantsan online project Jammi launched anonymously with Matt Rivitz in 2016 to lobby advertisers to shun the right-wing site Breitbart. Check My Ads’ October 2021 debut followed the duo’s June 2020 founding of an advertising consultancy (and a Fast Company Most Innovative Companies nominee) under the same name.

At SXSW, Jammi and Atkin reminded attendees that the disinformation market remains bigger than Breitbart and is easy to monetize with ads placed automatically by advertising exchanges. “They can just churn out fake news stories, one after the other,” Atkin said. “It’s a very easy way to make money.”

The two speakers then outlined the demonetization of right-wing pundit Dan Bongino. It started with Jammi tweeting at Warby Parker in September 2021 to inquire if the eyeglass vendor really wanted its ad below a headline supporting Texas’ near-total abortion ban on the newsletter of Bongino’s ideological fellow traveler, Ben Shapiro. The same day, Warby Parker replied that the ad placement was an outside ad vendor’s mistake, and that it would henceforth exclude Shapiro’s publication, the Daily Wire, from any ad placements.

Bongino voiced his outrage over this and urged his audience to direct their own—not just at Jammi, but at Warby Parker. “Bongino’s followers did exactly what they were told, and they went to war with Warby Parker’s poor customer teams,” she said.

“We got a lot of harassment and death threats, some of which really scared us,” Jammi continued. “But it also gave us something we could work with, which was documented violations of ad exchange policies.”

Those “supply policies” of ad exchanges exist to protect what advertisers call brand safety—that an ad won’t appear on a hateful- or harassment-prone site.

“This public documentation of what’s happening really forces ad exchanges to act,” Jammi said.

After weeks of smaller ad exchanges booting BonginoYouTube banned the commentator for repeated COVID misinformation—which then led Check My Ads staff and supporters to ask how Bongino’s content could be a firing offense at YouTube but not at Google Ads. Google then dumped Bongino from its ad systemafter which the Twitter account of Bongino’s site responded with a you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit declaration: “We have permanently banned
@GoogleAds from our website.”

Jammi summed up the outcome: “Bongino, who now still has a top 10 Facebook page, is still sending quite a lot of traffic to that page. But he can’t monetize any of it.”

(The two speakers cited only pro-Trump, right-wing sites as misinformation mills but also shared nonpartisan criteria for judging a site’s veracity. For instance: Does it ground stories in facts and cite credible sources? Does it issue corrections? Does it run headlines written to anger readers? Does it repeatedly engage in “othering” nonWhite people as suspicious, dirty, or dangerous?)

Atkin then criticized ad exchanges for such ineffective anti-disinformation tools as keyword blocklists and “context control,” asking, “How do you have an entire industry based on not serving your clients’ needs?”

She called the former, in which ad networks withhold ads from pages containing disapproved words or phrases, “a mass-defunding event” for news sites that cover such unpleasant topics as school shootings and the ongoing pandemic.

As for the latter, in which ad-tech firms attempt to rate entire sites as safe or unsafe, Atkin recalled how the ad-tech vendor Integral Ad Science’s demo of its “contextual intelligence” system rated the explicitly white-nationalist site American Renaissance as “neutral,” after which that firm took the demo offline.

“Who thinks white nationalism is neutral?” Atkin asked the room, followed semi-jokingly, with, “Please don’t raise your hands.”

But the workings of ad exchanges can be exceedingly opaque, and much of this talk underscored the difficulty of Check My Ads’ mission.

Jammi, for example, said simple blocklists of bad actors don’t work because misinformation merchants either launch new sites or create “dark pool sales house” intermediaries, masquerading as another publisher to route money their way.

(“We’re still working on that,” Jammi said of dark pools in a quick interview after the panel. That issue ties into a larger problem of financial losses from fraudulent sites that didn’t make their talk: “We didn’t even get into ad fraud!”)

Not all ad exchanges are as open to outside critiques, either. During an audience Q&A, Jammi called the biggest among them, Google, “as closed as a clam,” after which Atkin recounted how Google did not drop the Gateway Pundita notorious font of fraudulent stories, until a French documentarian pressed this point on camera. “Google does not like it when they’re in documentaries and in the news for funding disinformation.”

So, while Check My Ads aims to generate pressure on ad agencies by leaning on advertisers first, one crowdsourced campaign at a time, Jammi and Atkin closed their talk by exhorting executives at advertisers—as in, also potential customers of their consultancy—to demand details on where their ads appear.

“When it comes to your ad placements, it’s also important to be a steward of your brand there,” Atkin said. “We need you to be a fussy customer, to be a difficult client.”

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