How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News
http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opini ... .html?_r=0
One day in late November, an earth and environmental science professor named Nathan Phillips visited Breitbart News for the first time. Mr. Phillips had heard about the hateful headlines on the site — like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” — and wondered what kind of companies would support such messages with their ad dollars. When he clicked on the site, he was shocked to discover ads for universities, including one for the graduate school where he’d received his own degree — Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “That was a punch in the stomach,” he said.
Why would an environmental science program want to be promoted on a site that denies the existence of climate change? Mr. Phillips figured — correctly — that Duke officials did not know where their ads were appearing, so he sent a tweet to Duke about its association with the “sexist racist” site. Eventually, after a flurry of communication with the environment department, he received a satisfying resolution — an assurance that its ads would no longer show up on Breitbart.
Mr. Phillips had just engaged in a new form of consumer activism, one that is rewriting the rules of online advertising. In the past month and a half, thousands of activists have started to push companies to take a stand on what you might call “hate news” — a toxic mix of lies, white-supremacist content and bullying that can inspire attacks on Muslims, gay people, women, African-Americans and others.
In mid-November, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants became the hub of the new movement. The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys.
“We’re focused on Breitbart News right now because they’re the biggest fish,” a founder of Sleeping Giants told me. (He requested anonymity because some members of the group work in the digital-media industry.) Eventually, Sleeping Giants would like to broaden its campaign to take on a menagerie of bad actors, but that would require a much bigger army of Giants, and “it has only been a month since we started doing this,” he told me when I talked to him in December. Then he added, “This has been the longest month of my life.”
He said that he noticed something had gone wrong with internet ads in November when, just out of curiosity, he visited Breitbart News. Like Mr. Phillips, he was gobsmacked by what he found there. His version of Breitbart was plastered with the logos of Silicon Valley brands that courted tech-savvy, pro-diversity millennials. “I couldn’t believe that these progressive companies were paying Breitbart News,” he said.
So he created a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants that would allow him and his fellow activists to anonymously interact with advertisers. Then they sent screenshots to companies like Chase, SoFi and Audi to prove that their ads appeared next to offensive content. Within hours, they received their first response, and they realized that they had stumbled across a potentially powerful tactic.
“We are trying to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars,” reads the Sleeping Giants profile. “Many companies don’t even know it’s happening. It’s time to tell them.” They say it’s not about taking away Breitbart’s right to free speech, but about giving consumers and advertisers control over where their money goes. The group’s Twitter page offers a simple set of instructions to anyone who wants to follow suit. Step 1: “Go to Breitbart and take a screenshot of an ad next to some of their content.” Step 2: “Tweet the screenshot to the company with a polite, nonoffensive note.”
The activists’ back-and-forth with companies reveals a fog of confusion surrounding online advertising. Many organizations have no idea that their ads may end up next to content they find abhorrent.
You might blame this — in part — on robots. According to the research firm eMarketer, American companies are now spending more than $22 billion a year on “programmatic ads,” the kind of advertising that is bought with little human oversight. Joshua Zeitz, vice president of corporate communications at the ad-tech company AppNexus, explained to me how this automated ad buying works. When you click on a link, “in less than a second, a call goes out, and algorithms and automated software bid in an auction to put their advertisement up on your page,” he said. “So maybe the Nabisco algorithm wants to put an ad up there; so does Macy’s and so does Honda.” The algorithm that places the highest bid wins the chance to appear on your screen.
Programmatic ads can also follow individuals around the internet, based on their browsing history, as happened with Mr. Philips. A single targeted ad could cost just a fraction of a penny, but the pennies add up to a billion-dollar industry.
Even when ad placements are automated, companies still have the power to control whether neo-Nazis or fake news hucksters profit. In fact, it’s actually rather simple for companies to impose ethical policies, according to Mr. Zeitz. Indeed, his own company (which handles programmatic advertising for other organizations) recently decided to get out ahead of the issue by removing Breitbart News from its advertising marketplace. “We’re not banning them because they’re alt-right or conservative. We banned them from our marketplace because they violate our hate speech policy, which prohibits ad serving on sites that incite violence and discrimination against minority groups.” (Breitbart has said that it condemns racism and bigotry “in any form.”)
He pointed out that brand-name companies had already figured out how to keep their ads from flowing onto porn sites, because “you really don’t want your ad for a breakfast cereal next to a hard-core pornographic video,” and so “there are tools in place that allow companies to control where their ads go.” A company can block a specific site like Breitbart News from its ad buy. Or it might pick a “white list” of sites that align with its values.
But to do that, companies would have to forgo the sites designed to deliver exactly what they want — a big audience for little cost. In November, NPR reporters interviewed Jestin Coler about his fake-news empire. Mr. Coler and his team stage-crafted their sites to look like local newspapers and then planted fantastical headlines and fictional stories that attracted more than a million views. Though the news was fake, the ads were real. Mr. Coler wouldn’t tell the reporters exactly how much he made off advertising, but he intimated that his revenues ranged between $10,000 and $30,000 a month.
Such “entrepreneurs” have an outsize influence on our political sphere. BuzzFeed News reported that, during the last three months of the election, hoax stories outperformed real ones on social media. Thanks to people enthusiastically sharing pro-Trump headlines cooked up by clickbait farms, in the bizarro-world of online advertising, the fake can be more profitable than the real.
Ezra Englebardt, an advertising strategist, joined the Sleeping Giants campaign because he believes it creates much-needed transparency in the online advertising world. When lots of people share photos of the ads that they’re seeing on their own screens, it becomes possible to get some sense of where the ad dollars go, he said.
Still, the post-truth reality makes it difficult to measure the scope of the problem. Breitbart’s editor in chief told Bloomberg that despite these bans, his company “continues to experience exceptional growth.” However, public Twitter communications and news accounts prove that advertisers are indeed fleeing the site.
More important, the screenshot activists are forcing companies to pick a side. After pressure from consumers, Kellogg’s became one of the first big brands to announce that it would remove its ads from Breitbart News. In retaliation, Breitbart called for a boycott, and the cereal brand seems to have suffered from the uproar on social media. At the same time, it received lots of good press for taking its stand; in early December, many consumers announced that they would reward the company by making all-Kellogg’s donations to soup kitchens.
I expected that other companies would want to trumpet their own Breitbart departures. It seemed an easy win for corporate P.R. to distance itself from Klan-rally-like riffs like this one — “every tree, every rooftop, every picket fence, every telegraph pole in the South should be festooned with the Confederate battle flag.” (Telegraph poles!?)
But when I reached out to several organizations that seemed to have joined the ban, they didn’t want to talk about it. A bank and a nonprofit group did not respond to my queries. Two companies — 3M and Zappos — declined to talk about the matter. A Patagonia spokeswoman said that her company did not advertise on white-supremacist sites — but she would not comment on the screenshots that activists had sent to Patagonia in early December showing the company’s logo on Breitbart’s Facebook page. Warby Parker was the most forthcoming; a representative pointed me to a statement that thanked a Twitter activist for inspiring its own ban on Breitbart.
In the behavior of some of these companies, you can detect the way our norms have already shifted. In the old normal, it would have cost little to stand up against neo-Nazi slogans. But in the new normal, doing so might involve angering key players in the White House, including the president-elect, Donald J. Trump, who has hired the former editor of Breitbart as his senior adviser. Mr. Trump recently proved the damage he could do to a company by criticizing Lockheed Martin on Twitter; soon after, its stocks prices tumbled.
Still, a new consumer movement is rising, and activists believe that where votes failed, wallets may prevail. This struggle is about much more than ads on Breitbart News — it’s about using corporations as shields to protect vulnerable people from bullying and hate crimes.
Nicholas Reville, a board member of the Participatory Culture Foundation who has worked with the Sleeping Giants, pointed out that businesses benefited from embracing diversity: “You have to be inclusionary if you’re going to try to sell to a very large audience.” And he pointed out that consumer activism might be especially effective because so many people feel they have no other way to express their opposition to Trump-ian values.
The founder of Sleeping Giants agreed. “It’s scary to say it, but maybe companies will have to be the standard-bearers for morals right now,” he said. He added that most corporations embrace policies (on paper at least) that prohibit racist bullying and sexual intimidation. Even if President Trump flouts these rules, corporations may continue to uphold them. “We’ve all seen employee handbooks where they have codes of behavior,” he said. “Maybe that’s all we have to fall back on now.”
I did my part today, and will continue to do so for the days to come: