Policy

The activist who got advertisers to dump Breitbart is coming for other extremist sites

“I think a lot of butts clenched at the idea that we were formalizing this.”

​Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi sit on a couch

Claire Atkin (left) and Nandini Jammi (right) co-founded the Check My Ads Institute.

Photo: Check My Ads Institute

Lately, Nandini Jammi has been forwarding all of the hate mail she receives to an executive at a company most people have never heard of: Magnite. The filth filling Jammi’s inbox, she said, has largely come from followers of far-right podcaster Dan Bongino, whose website has published a series of smears about Jammi in recent months. Jammi figures Magnite should know. Their ad exchange, she argues, is one of the businesses that keeps Bongino afloat.

Jammi has been picking fights with far-right media for years. As the co-founder of advocacy group Sleeping Giants, she was behind a successful pressure campaign to get advertisers to sever ties with Breitbart.

Her latest venture, the nonprofit Check My Ads Institute, which she co-founded with former marketer Claire Atkin last year, is taking aim not at advertisers but ad exchanges, which hold most of the power in determining where ads actually show up on the internet. Last week, Jammi and Atkin launched their first major pressure campaign against ad exchanges that have continued to work with the people they say were the primary peddlers of election misinformation leading up to the Capitol riot. Jammi and Atkin’s list includes Bongino as well as Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, Tim Pool and Charlie Kirk.

“The ad industry has talked about brand safety ad nauseam. But they do not name names, because no one wants to get their hands dirty,” Jammi said. “Unless we name these things and name the people who are bad actors, we cannot make progress in [this] space.”

Magnite, one of the companies the institute is targeting, did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment.

Jammi and Atkin spoke with Protocol about their Jan. 6 campaign, the harassment they’ve received and the outsized role Google plays in funding election lies — despite its promises not to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did Check My Ads get started?

Claire Atkin: Nandini had defunded Breitbart by 90% successfully by letting advertisers know that their ads were there. Breitbart was kneecapped by that, beheaded — I don't know what metaphor you'd like to use. But 90% of their revenue was pulled out. Steve Bannon himself complained on film that without ads, there's no economic model.

Then when Nandini and I met, I had been working as a marketer concerned about democracy and how our industry was undermining it. And Nandini had been working on this for so long. Both of us were like, who is taking control?

What we did is we wrote [a newsletter called] Branded, and then we started a for-profit agency, and we talked to over 200 [brands] last year about how to check your ads, how to stop funding hate speech and disinformation. And they were keen. They wanted to make this change. And they wanted to check their ads. Over and over again, they had trouble. Ad tech makes it really tough to figure out where you send your ads, how to block the bad sites, how to make sure that your campaigns reflect your brand values. And we decided after a year of working on that, that we, as consultants, could not fix the problem. We had to become a watchdog.

You uncover that this is happening, and then what? What’s the next step?

Nandini Jammi: We know that these advertisers have publisher policies in place to protect brand safety. They already have existing [agreements with ad exchanges] in place that preclude them from working with anyone who incites violence, promotes abuse [or] harassment of individuals or marginalized groups, [or spreads] intentionally misleading narratives or fake news. However, they are not enforcing them. And they're not because advertisers, for the most part, aren't aware that their ads are [being shown] there to begin with. So what we do is we find the ad exchanges that are working with these outlets, therefore violating their own agreement with advertisers, and then we write about it or advocate about it, and the relationship is usually terminated.

What has the reception from ad exchanges been so far?

NJ: Sometimes, they're receptive. Sometimes they respond immediately and will let me know that they have blocked that entity. Other times, they will ignore it or put it on the back burner, and then we have to sort of ramp up the pressure.

This was a role that we had taken on and that I personally have been known to take on all these years anyway. So when we formally launched a watchdog, I think a lot of butts clenched at the idea that we were formalizing this.

CA: Since we launched in October, we have lost Dan Bongino half a dozen ad exchanges. [Editor's note: Protocol was able to confirm five, and a sixth did not comment.]

Tell me about this Jan. 6 campaign.

CA: It is the first formal effort of Check My Ads to take on a topic. We identified the top six people who incited the insurrection [and] who made a ton of money off of it. We don't know how much, because the ad-tech supply chain is opaque. We called them out by name. And we're saying to anyone who wants to join us: Email ad-tech companies, and ask them how this tracks with their policies. That's it. So every day from here until the end of the campaign, we will be asking people to email different ad-tech companies and say: "These are the insurrectionists who you are supporting. You are sending ads to people who incited violence."

NJ: They’re sending money. They have direct relationships, bank account numbers of these people, and they send the money directly to them, or they send it to middlemen that these guys are working with. They still got the money.

Until Sleeping Giants named Breitbart as a brand-unsafe outlet, they were being served by all of these ad exchanges because they were technically considered conservative news. Because so many of these ad exchanges are the same ones that worked with Breitbart, we think that we have the playbook already to de-monetize them.

When you talk about the fact that ad exchanges have these rules on the books, but they don't enforce them, is the lack of enforcement just that they don't want to do it because it's going to cost money? Or is it, we don't want to do it because it's going to make us look bad politically? Or is it that they don't have the resources to enforce it? What are you finding is the biggest barrier?

CA: It's a choose-your-own-adventure of excuses. You just hit the top three.

Of those exchanges, are you finding that Google is one of the main culprits?

CA: Google funds over 80% of the [COVID-19] disinformation, according to the Global Disinformation Index. There are a handful of companies in the world who control the flow of $400 billion. They decide whether or not it goes to local journalism or Dan fucking Bongino. [Editor's note: Google spokesperson Michael Aciman noted that the Global Disinformation Index report was published in 2020, before Google implemented its policy around COVID-19 misinformation, which has resulted in millions of ads being removed from publisher pages. “It in no way reflects the scope of our enforcement today or the breadth of work we’ve done to tackle COVID-19 misinformation on our platforms,” Aciman said.]

How do they compare in terms of their responsiveness to what you're calling out compared to some of these smaller ad exchanges?

NJ: The reason that we target the smaller ad exchanges is because they are not part of the duopoly, and they are a lot more susceptible. What happens then is that we're able to create traction for each of the outlets that we are targeting. And ultimately, we can take that to Google and say: Well, all of these other guys have blocked it. What about you? In the very rare cases that Google does block something, that actually makes it easier to go to the other ad exchanges that are still there and have them cut [the publisher] off as well.

An example of this is Gateway Pundit. NextRoll, Criteo and Magnite [formerly Rubicon] all dropped The Gateway Pundit from their inventory in summer of 2020. And then [last year], Google dropped Gateway Pundit ahead of the publication of a documentary that specifically humiliated them. [Editor's note: Google’s Aciman said in a statement,“In the last year alone, we’ve removed ads from thousands of pages across the sites flagged by Check My Ads and continue to monitor all publishers and creators in our network to ensure they comply with our policies.”]

CA: There is no leadership. They follow each other's lurches. Like, one of them will have a whim, and then we use that as leadership. Already, that's ridiculous. But then also, they respond well to getting publicly outed.

From a policy perspective, is there anything you guys are looking for?

CA: We need a lot more oversight. We need to know what ad exchanges have relationships with what publishers. We need to know who owns ad-tech companies who are receiving ad dollars on behalf of these publishers, and then passing it on. There's a whole swath of shell companies that we don't know anything about within the ad-tech stack. When an ad exchange removes a publisher, we need a place to look. Right now, it's a guessing game.

Why is it so important to know who these [companies] are working with?

CA: There are three things that are traded on the ad-tech supply chain: ads, money and data.

NJ: Personal data. Not who you are, but everything about who you are. It's all the stuff that's triangulated about you. Your real-time location is the most, I think, serious one. Combined with all the other data points that they know about me, including where [I’ve] been going through the day, they can infer my location and where I work and where I hang out and all that stuff, and they can figure out who I am.

CA: If you were a propagandist for a foreign psy-ops group, wouldn't you like to know any of this information? The ad-tech industry isn't just funding extremism and the things that are affecting our national security domestically. It's also an incredible portal into the everyday lives of every single American who uses the internet.

Do you guys have any institutional backers?

CA: Right now we're depending entirely on the generosity and encouragement of the public.

Then also getting revenue from the consultancy side?

CA: We've slowed down that work, but to date have been supported by that. Yes.

Which ad exchanges are you targeting through this campaign?

NJ: We didn't include all of them. We picked out the ones that were the biggest and most major ad exchanges, so this is not an exhaustive list. [On Jan. 5], we as a group contacted OpenX. We have not heard from them at all. OpenX is one of the companies that I have had a dialogue with in the past, and they have been fairly responsive. I’m hoping a little push or a little punch from the public is the impetus to do the right thing. [Editor's note: In a statement, OpenX spokesperson Max Nelson said, “We take marketplace quality really seriously, and in terms of the sites in question, there are some that we don't work with and had previously classified as not complying with our supply policies, and for sites that we do monetize, we are actively monitoring them to make sure they are not in violation of any of our policies.”]

I contacted Magnite personally and privately initially, and I said, “Hey, Dan Bongino is violating your own publisher policy against harassment and abuse. Literally, he is harassing and abusing me.” And they replied, and they said, “We take harassment very seriously.” And they have continued to work with him ever since.

Is there anything else you think people should know about your work or this industry?

CA: Emphasizing the immense power that these ad exchanges have is really the only thing that I would ask you to do. We are in a disinformation crisis and a journalism crisis: 30,000 jobs have been lost in the last decade in journalism. Just local journalism jobs. That's really scary. And that money is going straight into the pockets of disinformation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the Global Disinformation Index was published. This story was updated on Jan. 11, 2022.

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