What do Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk, Glen Beck, Tim Pool, Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson at Fox News all have in common? They all lost their platforms for spreading hate and disinformation, thanks to Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi, the digital marketers behind the ad tech watchdog, the Check My Ads Institute. And, as Claire tells us, it all started with just a few simple questions.
As digital marketers, one of the things Claire and Nandini used to do was to help clients place digital ads on websites and apps, through middlemen called ad tech companies. Things were going fine – until they discovered that they didn't have any control over what sites their ads were placed on. Not only that, they couldn't even get that information in a report from the ad tech company they hired to place the ads. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
They soon discovered that ads for "good" brands were being placed in "bad" digital spaces, like the far-right Breitbart News Network. That meant that the money they paid to run the ads was directly funding things like racism, hate and disinformation. Plus, the integrity of the good brands they represented was being destroyed because it was associated with these other bad brands.
"We're now seeing that the disinformation economy is thriving more than ever. You know, this is the underbelly of everything. This is an industry that is $400 to $700 billion dollars Nobody knows if it's 400 or if it's 700. It's impossible to measure. And the adtech companies don't even know. The advertisers don't know, of course, the publishers, the websites, they don't know either."
Change starts with curiosity and questions
It turns out that the gigantic ad tech industry is essentially a black box that nobody from the outside understands. So they started asking more questions, this time in public, through a newsletter called Branded.
That lit the spark of a revolution to make the ad tech industry more transparent and accountable. People on the inside started to send them secret messages about what else they should investigate. Brands came to them for help in figuring out how to keep their brand "safe" from exposure on these bad platforms.
In response, they set up a marketing agency to help companies learn and practice "brand safety". While that helped, it wasn't addressing the core problem – that the industry was largely unregulated and becoming increasingly dangerous.
After a year, they realized what was really needed was an industry watchdog, and transformed the agency into a non-profit dedicated to defunding disinformation.
"This is now a disinformation economy. This industry has grown to be a powerhouse for people who want to publish in bad faith, people who want to systematically feed us lies so that we distrust our neighbours more because it's both financially advantageous and politically advantageous to do so. And so that's how we've framed it. And we've been very aggressive in our assertion that this has to change."
Innovation doesn't have to be complex
In addition to advocating for more and better regulation, and continuing to educate others on brand safety, they started to build on earlier work by Jammi and others to run targeted campaigns to shut down funding for the most powerful disinformation platforms.
While their approach wasn't rocket science, it was incredibly effective. When they would see an ad for a good brand show up on a bad site, they'd take a screenshot and send it to the ad client to let them know what was happening. Most of the time, the client would be horrified and pull the ad.
"And advertisers said, 'Hey, ad tech folks! You are in charge of our campaigns.' To put it in perspective, marketers spend months putting together focus groups, qualitative and quantitative research. The right copy, the right colours, everything is pixel-perfect. So to have the very last thing, the placement of the ads sort of handed over is an incredibly trusting thing to do. And they said, 'Don't make us sponsor racism and bigotry.'"
Pick one thing and do it
In just a few years, they've used this approach to defund 6 global leaders in disinformation, most recently Tucker Carlson at Fox News. And they're doing it all on a shoestring, with just a tiny staff. Their power comes from being incredibly focused - not trying to do too many things. And being in the right. People want them to succeed.
"When we started our newsletter, when we started the agency, and then again when we started our nonprofit, it felt like we were jumping off a cliff and we were just praying that folks would catch us. Nandini and I, every time before we pressed go on any of these things, we said, 'Oh my God, do we really want to do this? It just opens us up to so much criticism and to so much hate. And what if people think we're crazy? We're just two people trying to take on the 700 billion-dollar ad tech industry.' But that's not what happened. What happened is people came through,– they immediately started donating. We had individuals give anywhere between five and a hundred dollars a month. We had individuals send us $15,000 at a time, and then we also had some foundations come through. And that's how we funded ourselves to date."
But their victories come with a huge personal cost. They're now prime targets for groups like the radical right, subject to ongoing hate and slander.
Knowledge is power. Purpose is fuel.
What keeps them going despite the challenges? Fear of what will happen if they stop. For them, for all of us, this is a battle for democracy.
"We are up against the rise of global authoritarianism right now in the world. This weaponry that is the ad tech system is a playground for propagandists and for people who act in bad faith. And for people who want there to be global fascism, they want there to be a two-tiered system. One group gets away with absolute impunity and the rest are always afraid of being criminalized for some reason or another."
I love this story and the work these women are doing. Not just because it's making the world safer, kinder and more just. But also because they didn't wait for someone to give them permission to get started. They didn't hold back launching until they had a bunch of money and a huge following. They saw a need and took action. And they didn't try to do it alone. As Claire says, they've jumped off a cliff three times now and always landed safely because of the support of others.
I really encourage you to listen to our full conversation – Claire shares so much more wisdom and courage there. And if you care about democracy, you can support their work and future campaigns at the Check My Ads Institute.