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Passion, conspiracy, and friendly fire: the pursuit of cleaning up digital media

Passion, conspiracy, and friendly fire: the pursuit of cleaning up digital media
The Media Leader Interview

Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin, the duo behind Check My Ads, are taking aim at Fox News, adtech firms, and even like-minded companies who they say stand in the way of defunding harmful online actors.

 

In 2016, digital media helped propel the campaigns for Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. Far-right commentators who used to operate on the fringes were benefitting from new-found attention among the mainstream and they were multiplying online.

Claire Atkin, a marketing lead in Vancouver, became intensely concerned, noticing that “it became increasingly obvious that our marketing stack—basically the tech tools that stack up to allow us to do more work—were being co-opted to influence elections and to spread hate.”

Atkin decided to study international election observations at the Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice with the goal of understanding how the tools she was using in her day job were being used to disseminate election disinformation. But the experts, purportedly the “definitive source of information” on the industry, were just as befuddled as she was.

“What I found was that they were at the behest of all of the tech platforms, and that they too were stymied in their work, and that not only were they unable to report on what was happening, they couldn’t measure how bad the problem was in any country around the world.”

Anxious about the rise of authoritarian figures and the media ecosystem that was sprouting up to back them, Atkin began spending more time on personal research into how digital marketing was contributing to election concerns, wanting to “understand what the guardrails were that we had at our disposal” as a society.

But as she found, “we don’t have very many”.

‘The adtech world is like air, gas, and a match for propaganda’

While Atkin explored her research “on the side of my desk, just as someone who was concerned and interested”, fellow marketer Nandini Jammi had begun working pro bono in 2016 for a social media activism organization, Sleeping Giants, that was seeking to pressure brands to remove advertisements from far-right news outlets, including and especially Breitbart News.

Jammi left the organization in 2019, a decision which she attributed to being sidelined and “gaslighted” by co-founder Matt Rivitz, who later issued a public apology.

By the time Jammi and Atkin met for the first time that year, Sleeping Giants had, as Atkin describes, “basically gotten the entire ad industry to say ‘don’t put our ads on hate speech and disinformation'”. And yet, the pair was confused that the problem had somehow metastasized. Why “were there now 100 Breitbarts”?

“That’s when we realized that we needed to do what felt like a PhD in adtech really quickly, and to work in public, and that’s why we started the newsletter,” says Atkin.

Thus, a working relationship that began with a simple walk between like-minded women in Vancouver (Atkin’s current base of operations) has blossomed into a force to be reckoned with in the media industry.

“We are just yin and yang,” attests Jammi. “I am like the chaos agent and Claire is like the order agent. She knows how to take my ideas and turn it into a real vision, she was the one who pushed for this non-profit and did all the work to make it exist. She sees what I am trying to do and will build the road for it.”

“If it was just me, I would still just be a shitposter. Claire turned us into non-profit executives.”

The newsletter, Branded, was followed by the creation of a for-profit brand and marketing safety agency. But when they realized that Fortune 500 brands that were following their safety guidelines were unable to receive granular data on their own campaigns from adtech companies, they decided that advertisers and consumers needed a voice to hold the industry accountable.

“The adtech world is like air, gas, and a match for propaganda,” says Atkin. “It is all they need. The ads give them legitimacy, the money helps sustain and grow their operation, of course, and the data allows them to hyper-target [those] who are more and more susceptible to lies or undue victimhood.”

“It is so powerful. And it has been so ignored because it is technical and opaque, and we have to pay attention.”

‘I am not living in the world that I want to be living in’

In October 2021 the group shifted focus to launching their non-profit watchdog organization, the Check My Ads Institute.

It has “become increasingly clear that we’re sort of turning into an editorial company,” according to Jammi. The Check My Ads Institute, alongside Branded, publishes investigative reporting and research into the role of digital advertising’s promoting of hate speech and misinformation online with the goal of mobilizing an effort to address malpractice in the marketing industry.

Jammi and Atkin do not consider themselves journalists, but they nevertheless “try to adhere to journalistic standards”, despite their ready admissions of bias and status as a non-profit rather than a publication.

“We are strongly advocating for our point of view,” says Jammi. “The work here is not just to put out reports. The work is to activate the public, to educate the public, to make them aware of what’s happening, and then give them something to do so that they can change what is happening and change the narrative.”

To this end, social media has become a lightning rod for Check My Ads—Jammi personally has in excess of 90,000 Twitter followers and makes daily, at times incendiary Tweets and TikTok posts to rally support for the non-profit’s mission.

“Social media is just part of our general messaging strategy,” says Atkin, who refers to their work as “platform agnostic”.

The popularity of some of the organization’s videos has compelled them to remind their audience that Check My Ads does more than just TikToks.

Check My Ads is still a small team—”just the bones of what makes a non-profit”, according to Atkin—and they work day and night to research and produce content. Their leaders come across as passionate and driven advocates.

Jammi’s devotion to the cause, she says, stems from the feeling that “I am not living in the world that I want to be living in. I am trying to create the world that I want to live in. And that’s an inclusive, equitable world that doesn’t elevate hate.”

While others have been publicly or privately urging companies, brands, and ad exchanges to act to defund known hate and disinformation websites, Check My Ads takes a more indirect approach.

“Companies don’t pay attention if you ask them to do something,” observes Jammi. “I learned a long time ago that asking nicely isn’t going to get the results that we’re looking for. Instead what we do is we investigate them.”

Jammi and Atkin’s “basic playbook” is to look at what social media and adtech companies’ current practices are compared to their own policies on ad fraud, misinformation, and hate speech online.

“When we are putting ourselves out there on social media, we’re not coming from a place of ‘you’re a powerful company and we are asking you to do something that you don’t have to do.’ We come from a place of ‘you need to do this according to your own policies, if you know what’s what’s good for yourselves and for your customers,’” says Jammi.

“Companies know that once we have investigated them or looked into their practices and found unsavory details that they don’t really have a choice and they need to change it quickly.”

Destroying Fox News’ business model

Check My Ads has made mainstream headlines this year for battling Fox News in a bid to defund the network of its advertising. Jammi described Fox News’ leadership as knowing “that it’s not any different than OANN or Newsmax” in its peddling of lies and conspiracy theories, including promoting “Stop the Steal” efforts and white supremacist rhetoric, through its primetime pundits. The campaign uses the line: “Fox News is trying to overthrow the government. You can stop them”.

Jammi described to The Media Leader how “deeply entrenched” Fox News is in the advertising and media industries, noting that they are members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and are represented by the trade association Digital Context Next alongside other reputable sources of news such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, and CNN.

“People don’t understand—and this is what I’d like to change—that they are really invested in relationships within this industry. So they are extremely powerful, well-placed, and influential among decision-makers. And as long as they have these ad industry professionals on their side, they are safe.”

Check My Ads believes that if it is able to isolate Fox News from the ad industry, it can begin to “destroy its business model.”

Critics have levied that since just a fraction (~5%) of Fox News’ revenues come from advertising (the majority instead comes from cable box fees), that Check My Ads’ campaign against Fox is unlikely to be effective in its defunding efforts. But Jammi believes that undermining Fox’s credibility among key players in the ad industry will create a domino effect that will not only cut into Fox’s ad revenues, but its cable box revenues as well.

“What we really need to do is call into question Fox’s categorization as a conservative news outlet and to really prove, show and create wide understanding that it is a disinformation outlet.”

Jammi is working to do just that, this week publishing an opinion in The Boston Globe urging advertisers to defund Tucker Carlson and Fox News.

“A lot of people want to see us just go straight to the top and chop off its head. But you can’t do that because Fox News has been working for 25 years to get to where it is today. […] They have a strong foundation, so we need to hack away at that foundation; work just as hard as Fox News has to be able to take it down.”

In response to CheckMyAds’ criticism, a spokesperson from Fox News stated: “Fox News Media strongly supports the first amendment and is proud to lead the industry in featuring more dissenting viewpoints on the major issues facing the country than our cable news competitors, which is why we attract the most politically diverse audience in television news.”

Calling out anyone that undermines their mission

Jammi works to produce incisive videos on TikTok with the goal of informing Check My Ads’ 31.9k followers about the business practices of the news organizations Check My Ads is going after. But criticisms from Check My Ads’ leaders extend not just to bad actors they want to deplatform, but to other individuals or organizations that ostensibly care deeply about the same issues.

For example, Jammi and Atkin have been reproving of ratings organization NewsGuard. The company, which works with brands and ad exchanges to create exclusion lists based on ratings it develops from a “thorough review of nine basic, nonpartisan journalistic criteria”, had given FoxNews.com a rating of 69.5, which placed it in a “green” category (it has since been downgraded to a “red” rating of 57 as of July 18). Other sites, such as The Post Millennial and Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire received somewhat similar marks.

Such exclusion lists are “superficial” and “useless” according to Jammi, who argues they don’t actually work thanks to overwhelming fraudulence among ad exchanges.

NewsGuard disagrees, telling The Media Leader that, though human errors and accidents can happen, “what we have found with clients of ours who we know are using an exclusion list is that they’re not, with any degree of regularity, ending up on the sites that they shouldn’t want to be on.”

NewsGuard does not offer any specific exclusion lists, but rather works directly with advertisers who use NewsGuard’s ratings to decide for themselves what sites they’re willing to be on.

When pushed on the subject of their ratings categories by The Media Leader in a May interview, NewsGuard CEOs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz said most of the company’s clients use more granular data from its reports, rather than the binary consumer-facing red-green categories that have placed Fox alongside more reputable news organizations. In an email responding to criticism from Check My Ads, Brill stressed to The Media Leader that anyone commenting on their ratings should read the “nutrition labels” (i.e., the substantive report) and not just look at the rating color.

Matt Skibinski, general manager of NewsGuard, added in a separate email: “For all three of the sites you mentioned, our ratings of each of these sites describe credibility and transparency issues for each site in exhaustive detail—noting that there are ‘significant exceptions’ to their adherence to journalistic standards and that they fail to ‘gather and present information responsibly.’ Based on these ratings, many advertisers working with us choose not to advertise on these sites—so the basic premise of this criticism from Check My Ads is flawed.”

But Jammi is unconvinced, and critical of NewsGuard for working directly with adtech companies that she sees as the root of the problem.

“Adtech companies make it so difficult for [advertisers] to know where their ads are running,” she says. “Where your ads are placed are just as important as the message itself. And advertisers are currently not able to control that. […] That is a liability to their brand reputation and brand equity.”

NewsGuard does not necessarily disagree, and said it is “always in favor of more transparency” while pointing out it has written reports critical of ad exchanges.

“The way we work with ad exchanges has nothing to do with their transparency for advertisers, it has to do with ad exchanges that should want to avoid funding misinformation sources,” says Skibinski.

“Would the world be better off if those ad exchanges couldn’t work with us to get data to help them do that? I don’t think so. I think you can, on the one hand, think that more transparency in the tech world is a really important goal, and on the other hand, think that making sure that exchanges have the data they need to avoid funding misinformation is an important goal. […] Those are not competing goals at all. They’re both great things that we think could happen.”

Jammi describes elaborate ad fraud practices being taken within the adtech industry. In particular “dark pooling”—wherein advertisers seek to negotiate direct programmatic purchases on one website but unintentionally end up spending money on a “pool” of websites that can include disinformation platforms. One such example is former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s Real America’s Voice. The channel, which advertisers rightfully want to exclude, was nevertheless having ads unwittingly purchased via its parent company Performance One Media.

“Advertisers believe at this time and have believed that what matters is that their ads don’t appear next to objectionable content,” adds Jammi. “What we are teaching the industry is that it’s not about adjacency but the flow of money, and the fact is that money continues to flow to bad actors even if you add them to your block list.”

She has further criticized NewsGuard’s latest report on advertisers continuing to fund “Stop the Steal” misinformation websites for not including Fox News in its analysis, going so far as to suggest that NewsGuard has a “backdoor deal” with Fox News. When pressed on this assertion by The Media Leader, Jammi stated she did not have any evidence to back up her claim.

Skibinski stated: “It’s disappointing to see Check My Ads, which positions itself as a disinformation watchdog, employing the same tactics as the disinformation publishers it criticizes—spreading a baseless conspiracy theory without a shred of evidence. For the record, this conspiracy theory about NewsGuard advanced by Check My Ads is simply false.”

The spat with NewsGuard is personal for Jammi and Atkin, who have been aggressively targeted by conservative Canadian magazine The Post Millennial for trying to demonetize the publication over spreading Covid misinformation. The outlet has accused Jammi of antisemitism and of being an “Antifa activist and cancel-culture crusader”. The Post Millennial also ran a hit piece that, according to Jammi, implied Atkin was a child predator for offering to purchase books for teens that feature “sexual or gender identity as a prominent subject” following book bans on such material in Oklahoma last December. NewsGuard has rated The Post Millennial “green”, and when pushed by Jammi to amend the rating via Twitter, she alleges NewsGuard declined.

Skibinski challenged such assertions, stating that the last time the company heard directly from Check My Ads was over six months ago via a LinkedIn message, and that NewsGuard has not had a call with them since February of 2021. He added that “if they are claiming they have engaged with us directly in any significant way about these sites, that is not accurate. But again, even if they had done so, it would not factor into our rating process.”

Skibinski said: “It’s not clear to us that the CheckMyAds team has even read our current ratings and nutrition labels for these sites. We’re aware that CheckMyAds has criticized our ratings on Twitter at times, but in multiple cases they have posted screenshots or PDFs of older, outdated versions of our ratings for particular sites.”

He noted that on July 18, Jammi posted a screenshot of a version of NewsGuard’s CNN rating from early 2020.

NewsGuard regularly updates their nutrition labels to consider changes made by sites, and has policies in place to “always reach out to publishers to give them a chance to explain their practices before giving them a negative assessment on any of our nine criteria” as a way to encourage best practice.

Jammi later announced via Twitter that her account at NewsGuard was suspended.

When asked about the suspension, Skibinski, Brill, and Crovitz were unaware that it had occurred, and indicated to The Media Leader that, though personal accounts can be regularly flagged if suspected of non-personal use, they intended to reinstate her account.

Skibinski continued: “Perhaps the issue here is a fundamental difference in how we operate versus how CheckMyAds operates. NewsGuard does not tell advertisers where to run their ads—we simply provide a fair, transparent, and apolitical set of ratings based on which each advertiser or company can make its own decisions about ad placement.”

All that said, NewsGuard holds no acrimony with Check My Ads or the work they do. In fact, the general sentiment is the opposite.

“We read their work, the work they do is often really great,” says Skibinski.

Crovitz added: “They do their work from their own operating philosophy, which is very different from ours, but they’re trying to solve similar problems to ours. We admire anybody who’s trying to solve problems.”

Brill gave further praise, stating that the world was a better place because of the work they do.

NewsGuard of course does not appreciate baseless accusations about its ethics, however.

“We welcome substantive criticism,” stated Skibinski.

The one-sided adtech industry watchdog community infighting highlights the different ways in which activist non-profits like Check My Ads and companies like NewsGuard, despite both attempting to solve the same problem, can still be at odds over how to do so effectively.

‘Fox has a playbook around Tucker Carlson’

NewsGuard is not the only example of Jammi being quick to call out anyone who appears to undermine Check My Ads’ mission. Earlier this month, soon-to-launch digital news platform Semafor, founded by leading US journalists Ben and Justin Smith (no relation), platformed Tucker Carlson at a pre-launch event sponsored by the journalism non-profit Knight Foundation.

“Fox has a playbook built around Tucker Carlson,” says Jammi, who notes that Tucker Carlson Tonight does not make money in a traditional TV advertising model. Despite the fact that he has the highest-rated cable TV show, she explains, no prestige brands advertise in his time slots lest they be associated with his opinions and rhetoric.

Instead, according to Jammi, Fox News pushes advertisers toward more standard, less controversial news reporting during daytime programming, using Tucker “as a magnet” to build an overall audience that is savory to advertisers—just not during his show itself.

She publicly called out Ben Smith for giving Carlson, whom Jammi has described as a white supremacist, the opportunity to speak at an event that also featured renowned guests such as Politico founding editor John Harris, Washington Post tech columnist Taylor Lorenz, and CBS News journalist Wesley Lowery.

Smith publicly defended the decision as a way to “ask hard questions of powerful people”.

“I know that people like Ben Smith are incredibly influential within the media industry and the advertising industry. When we go to ad exchanges and advertisers and say, ‘You need to not be advertising on Tucker’, well they go and do their research. And when they see someone like Ben Smith inviting Tucker as a headliner guest for his new media venture launch, they see that and they go, ‘Well, he can’t be that bad. Looks like he’s just another conservative media figure.’”

After the interview, Smith was criticized by other journalists on Twitter for getting steamrolled by Carlson, including Lowery. Jammi told The Media Leader that Smith was “laundering his reputation” and making it harder for “groups like us to fight […] Tucker Carlson’s power.”

She released a video on the “sexy tension going on between Tucker Carlson and Ben Smith” that outlined how Smith previously admitted in a New York Times article that he views Carlson as an important insider source for right-wing political information. The video has received upward of 360,000 and 30,000 views on Twitter and TikTok, respectively.

‘The long-term vision is to be a place for us to reimagine what digital advertising can look like’

The team at Check My Ads is clearly not afraid of controversy, nor apparently interested in the nuanced solutions to defunding online disinformation offered by NewsGuard.

They are instead eager to point to the numerous examples of their early successes. Jammi, for instance, lives in “[Dan] Bongino’s empty bank account” according to her Twitter profile, and the non-profit boasts of successfully defunding other alleged January 6 “insurrectionists” such as Charlie Kirk, Glenn Beck, Steve Bannon, and Tim Pool.

That doesn’t mean that such men have been completely cut out of the conversation, however. Despite the significant decrease in advertising funding, these figures have retained their right wing audiences.

“The goal, obviously, is to put them out of business. But realistically speaking, they’re going to exist,” admits Jammi. “And I honestly have no problem with them existing on the margins of society—they’re entitled to their beliefs—but again, this sort of juggernaut-level growth is not something that they should be entitled to.”

Regardless, Atkin sells the venture as a way for average citizens to make real impact on an industry that has wronged them.

“The Check My Ads playbook works. And I think what we’re doing is offering to people who have been concerned for years about the state of our media, and the state of our social media, and about the state of our politics and the safety of our communities […] [the ability to] do something tangible.”

As to the future, Atkin says the pair is in this for the long-term.

“Our first mission is to dismantle the disinformation economy. But we’re an adtech watchdog; there’s a lot to fix in the adtech industry, and I expect us to be doing more research, to be doing more storytelling, and I expect us to welcome many other people from other countries doing the same work.”

What’s next? For starters, there are still unknowns to be uncovered, such as who is working with whom across the digital advertising supply chain, and who is bankrolling fraudulent, dangerous, or incendiary online media practices. In this respect, conspiratorial thinking continues to drive curiosity and research at Check My Ads.

“It could be the GRU from Russia, it could be the CCP, it could be Dan Bongino himself,” says Atkin. “It’s like a series of Russian dolls, like companies within companies. It is a magpie’s nest of relationships.”

Check My Ads is interested in relentlessly pursuing answers, ostensible allies be damned—if they get in the way.

 

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect comment from Fox News, and that NewsGuard had updated FoxNews.com’s nutrition label.

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