As one of the most alarming threats to public safety around the world, disinformation is a growing issue with violent consequences. From galvanizing the US Capitol Hill riot to inciting hate toward Asian people during the pandemic via “China Flu” rhetoric, disinformation (aka purposefully crafted, false narratives) perpetuates hate and bigotry. While people typically look to social media when pinpointing the source of fake news, advertising technology companies play an integral role in not only empowering fake news sites, but also capitalizing on them. Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi, co-founders of the recently-launched non-profit Check My Ads Institute, are some of the only advocates bringing ad-tech mechanisms into the spotlight, holding the industry accountable in order to abolish disinformation and hate-baiting.
One way Atkin and Jammi do this is by exposing how the disinformation supply chain actually works. Through their newsletter BRANDED, which launched in January 2020, and upcoming podcast Immeasurable, the duo expose the intricate tactics ad-tech companies employ to push advertiser dollars toward hate speech—tactics that these companies don’t want others to know.
The chain begins with advertisers. When brands want to place their ads, they turn to advertisement exchangers, trusting them to use their algorithms and strategies to place ads in a way that reaches the right demographics in the largest way possible. Unbeknownst to many of these brands, however, ad exchangers run ads in controversial places, including alt-right websites, that companies—especially well-known Fortune 500 companies—do not want to be associated with. Ad-tech companies do this because it’s profitable. “Publishers make money only when people click on the article and go to the website. Once they’re on the website, that’s when the ads pop up and the publisher receives a payout,” Atkin explains.
“The economy is driven by how well can you write a clickbait article, and when we’re talking about disinformation, we’re talking about hate bait—so what are the things that are going to make the conversation the most emotional on Facebook so that people click it? When we’re talking about the disinformation economy, we’re talking about the entire ecosystem that drives the proliferation of disinformation, hate and bigotry,” she continues. For ad exchangers, this means the incentive to monetize, and therefore bolster, alt-right and other racist platforms is highly lucrative, amounting to an almost $400 billion industry.
Even when brands find out that their ads are placed in the wrong sites—which more are waking up to due to Atkin and Jammi relentlessly proving it to them through their brand consulting agency—they are powerless to stop it. Atkin explains, “The ad-tech companies will say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this covered. Here’s a dashboard with a bunch of toggles and you can toggle off news about shootings or news about Black Lives Matter or news that includes LGBTQ stories.’ That way they say you can control your brand safety, but what we have understood over time is that the interpretation of those toggles is illogical.” Whether that re-interpretation is purposeful or not, exchangers continue to place ads that peddle disinformation, making it nearly impossible for brands to find and stop all their misplaced advertisements. Like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole, no matter how many times advertisers locate and terminate an ad in the wrong site, they continue to pop up elsewhere.
Part of the blame for this also lies in the loose system on the side of ad exchanges, digital platforms where advertisers and exchangers go to buy and sell advertisement space. “Adtech companies have a lax vetting process that allows pretty much anybody to monetize,” says Jammi. “You or I can spin up a fake news website and quite easily get in to [advertising company] Criteo’s inventory and start collecting ad dollars from pretty high-quality brands, or I can create a content farm and I can start collecting ad dollars in exactly the same way. If I get blocked for any reason, I can just spin up a new website. So that’s what happens: the bad guys are spinning up new websites every day and they’re not being vetted by the ad exchanges.” In placing advertisements alongside disinformation platforms, ad-tech companies capitalize off of racist articles, empowering those authors to continue disseminating hate speech.
“That’s the reason we go directly to the ad exchanges,” continues Jammi. “Our goal is to bring transparency to the supply chain and empower all advertisers to be able to go to their ad exchanges with the information that we uncover and demand refunds for violating the legal supply chain policy that they’ve agreed to or to hold them accountable.” While the consulting agency had limited capacity for change, given that it worked with advertisers who are powerless when it comes to deciding ad placements, the non-profit organization seeks to make the the disinformation ecosystem public to advocate for reform.
Through this new non-profit initiative, Check My Ads is making the ad-tech industry accessible and understandable, as those subscribed to the platform, dubbed “checkmates,” can call in or chat with the duo with questions and queries on terms that are still confusing.
What we’re going to do now is that we’re going to have this conversation in public. We’re on a mission.
“The difference between [the agency] and what we’re going to do now is that we’re going to have this conversation in public. We’re on a mission. This is not about how much money we can make within the ad-tech economy, this is about cutting disinformation off at the source,” says Atkin. “We uncover relationships between ad-tech companies and the disinformation economy. So when we’re talking about the harms that we see in our election disinformation sphere, Nandini and I will be able to draw a clear line between the people who are making the most money with election disinformation to ad-tech. We are drawing that relationship so advertisers can see clearly how it works, because without these stories out in the public, they don’t know.”
Currently, the pair are focused on fighting disinformation that is urgently threatening. “We’re really targeting the folks who incited the 6 January Capitol Hill insurrection because we don’t know if they’re gonna see justice in the legal system, but we intend to fully hold them accountable—hold the ad-tech industry accountable for amplifying them, promoting them and making money off them,” Jammi adds. “We don’t want to wait around for the next attack on our country. We want to nip them in the bud right now.”
With their podcast, Immeasurable, the duo aims to generate a movement around brand safety to inform others about how it directly relates to community safety. Their podcast will cover topics like, “What it means to have privacy today, what does it mean for ads to follow us around, what kind of data are they collecting about us, what are they trying to do when they serve us ads in certain places,” exaplins Jammi. “The public doesn’t really understand this as a whole, so we’re going to bring that whole picture to them and really create a discussion around if this current surveillance advertising model is worth saving.”
While the task is an undoubtedly large undertaking (that also comes with a heavy dose of harassment), Atkin and Jammi remain encouraged about restructuring the digital ad-tech industry. “We know that after every BRANDED, things change for the better. Within 24 hours, we see change within the ad-tech stats whenever we draw these relationships out, and I think that means this is the most pragmatic, most hopeful thing that we can do to solve the disinformation crisis and that to me is really exciting,” Atkin says. With the watchdogs on the frontlines, the industry will not go unchecked—and that’s not only hopeful, but crucial for public safety.
Hero image courtesy of Check My Ads Institute