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Some online advertisers are surprised to learn where their ads turn up. They buy ads for a product, which are supposed to reach so many eyeballs across the internet, and the ads reach those eyeballs on websites that promote disinformation or conspiracy theories. NPR’s Bobby Allyn reports on a nonprofit that wants to expose what’s happening.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Former marketer Nandini Jammi wanted to fight the spread of disinformation online and turned to something she knew a lot about – advertising.
NANDINI JAMMI: We started to ask this question, why is the advertising industry still funding hate speech, even though advertisers have made it so clear that they don’t want to be anywhere near it?
ALLYN: She zeroed in on the hidden engine of this system – ad exchanges. It’s a super murky industry, but think of ad exchanges as a middleman between most companies trying to place ads and endless websites. The ads appear on sites through an automated process. It happens in the blink of an eye, too quickly for companies to keep track of.
JON KLEIN: You may be unaware of where your messages are showing up and what content your brand is living next to.
ALLYN: That’s Jon Klein, a former CNN executive who now works in digital media.
KLEIN: It’s the nightmare of most responsible marketers.
ALLYN: The ad exchanges do have rules, like not working with websites that promote overthrowing government and not doing business with sites that undermine elections. But Claire Atkin with Check My Ads says the exchanges have a difficult time making sure their rules are followed each and every time.
CLAIRE ATKIN: Ad exchanges have set a line. They’ve set a standard for how their publishers should operate. We are just saying you need to uphold your own standards.
ALLYN: When Check My Ads did some checking, she found ads on sites promoting the big lie that Trump falsely claimed he won the election and sites supporting the January 6 rioters. When she pointed this out to the exchanges, more than a dozen severed ties with right-wing provocateurs – people like Steve Bannon, Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk.
ATKIN: It unplugged Charlie Kirk from the ads, the money and the data that the disinformation economy thrives on.
ALLYN: Now with the congressional hearings into the January 6 attack on the Capitol getting under way, Check My Ads hopes it will have success going after a bigger target – Fox News’ website and its popular YouTube channel. Mikel Ellcessor is the group’s chief operating officer.
MIKEL ELLCESSOR: Now all we’re doing is we’re saying, why is Fox News and specifically foxnews.com getting a pass?
ALLYN: Ellcessor points to Fox News star Tucker Carlson, who has expressed sympathy for the rioters who stormed the Capitol while dismissing the importance of the events that day. He also has spread falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election. Atkin says the group is calling on the public to pressure ad exchanges run by companies like Google and Verizon to block Fox from receiving online ads.
ATKIN: Advertisers have said over and over again, we don’t want to fund violence. And so it’s shocking that Fox News is still receiving these ad dollars.
ALLYN: In a statement, Fox News dismissed the campaign as an effort at censorship, saying, quote, “there’s no greater threat to democracy than the effort to silence free speech.” The cable network also said it takes pride in featuring more dissenting views than other cable news outlets. Taking on Fox is no easy feat. First, the big ad exchanges may fear a backlash from conservatives. And even if the campaign is successful, it wouldn’t kneecap Fox. About 95% of Fox’s profits come from its cable division, so losing online ads would barely put a dent in the company financially. But Check My Ads co-founder Jammi isn’t deterred.
JAMMI: We can do more than just complain and be sad and tweet and share with each other that we’re sad about where Fox News is taking us as a country. We can actually fight back.
ALLYN: According to an estimate by ComScore and NewsGuard, disinformation online generates about $2 billion a year in advertising revenue. Check My Ads says their aim is not just to take that money out of circulation, but also to push the online advertising industry to be more transparent about how ads wind up on sites in the first place.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News.
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