Kargo’s “no fake news” guarantee is fake news

How a simple mislabeling scheme has been hiding Kargo’s ties to dozens of disinformation outlets.

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us: 

UPDATE (8/17/21): Following our report, Kargo updated the labels of four dark pool sales houses - Next Millennium, Aditude.io, Freestar.io and Publisher Desk - to “Intermediary.” However, as of last night, all four pools have now been removed from their sellers.json directory.

Last week, we tweeted out an unsettling find about Kargo: that they were labeling a handful of ad management platforms as “PUBLISHER.” When we checked back one day later, the entries had been changed to “INTERMEDIARY” without comment or explanation.

This was a pretty sketchy move for Kargo, whose business ostensibly revolves around transparency. Kargo, which brags that they’re “100% ads.txt certified” (there is no such thing) and has the dubious honor of being ranked in the “top 1 percent” for brand safety by Integral Ad Science, has been a vocal champion of cleaning up the supply chain.

Kargo has even positioned their so-called exclusive, direct relationships with premium publishers as the antidote to ad-funded disinformation since 2017, when the Sleeping Giants campaign first set advertisers scrambling for a solution. (Disclosure: Nandini co-ran Sleeping Giants).

Today, they say they are so sure of their inventory that they even “guarantee no fake news” in their supply chain. How do they do that? Kargo general manager Robert Leach explains:

There is no middleman, giving us total transparency into every ad slot that loads on the page and preferential treatment for advertisers that run with us to win the impression. And when it comes to the economics between us and the DSP and the client you can be sure there are no hidden costs.”

As you can see, Kargo is all about keepin’ it tight and transparent. So it’s strange that Kargo has been mislabeling a handful of ad management companies as “PUBLISHERS.” 

Those are middlemen. Mislabelled middlemen. Mislabelled middlemen who manage hundreds and possibly thousands of other publishers that Kargo has no control over. Mislabelled middlemen who connect Kargo to everything from disinformation outlets like OANN and ZeroHedge to full on fake news rings.

Publisher vs. Intermediary: Why does it matter?

You might be wondering: Why does it matter whether an entry is labeled PUBLISHER or INTERMEDIARY?

These labels only really exist for one reason: to help advertisers confirm that their ads are being served on a verified entity (like Slate.com) and not someone pretending to be Slate.com. In an ecosystem full of domain spoofing, where fake sites pretend to be legitimate outlets, the ads.txt initiative is supposed to give advertisers a little confidence that their ads are ending up in the right place.

In theory, a marketer should be able to open up two tabs and find a match like this:

One of the things they will scan for is the Seller Type, which provides them with a crucial piece of information. Is the entity a…

PUBLISHER aka an outlet like Food52, Refinery29, Vice, Slate, etc. 


INTERMEDIARY aka a 3rd party that manages the publisher’s — and hundreds of others’ — adtech, revenues, bidding, etc. for them.

(Side note: Exchanges can also use the “BOTH” label. For a more detailed explainer on seller types, read our story on Seb Gorka’s ads.txt file.)

A lot of advertisers — particularly big brands — want to see PUBLISHER up and down their list. Why? Because it tells them they’ve made a direct buy with an outlet (or media group like Condé Nast), which they can track back to a single Seller ID. They are even willing to shell out a premium CPM rate for the privilege of accessing the audience they want and an ad buy they can verify and track back to that single account. 

The alternative, buying with an Intermediary account, is more of a shitshow. Intermediaries (or middlemen) manage ads for an unlimited number of publishers, under a single account ID. You would never be able to tell where their ads were served or which specific outlet your money flowed to from looking at that ID.

But for this system to work, we have to rely on ad exchanges to be the source of truth in this relationship. After all, ad exchanges are the ones that must have the correct information on file to make the payouts. 

So what if an ad exchange were to lie about their inventory? What if an Intermediary called itself a Publisher and the ad exchange just OK’ed that? What if they could charge advertisers those higher CPM rates reserved for Publishers while letting ads run wild on an unknown number of websites and domains operated by someone else?

Well, that’s exactly how you would end up funding disinformation and hate sites, right under everyone’s radar.

Meet A Kargo Dark Pool Sales House: Next Millennium Media

Here’s how this all works. 

Up until last week, Kargo’s sellers.json listed Next Millennium Media as a Publisher. But if you look at Next Millennium’s website, you’ll notice they don’t publish…anything. They just broker ads between advertisers and publishers. They are in fact, an supply-side platform (or SSP).

Next Millennium has declared themselves a Publisher anyway, and until last week, Kargo confirmed it. Together, they’ve been operating what we call a dark pool sales house

Under the guise of “Publisher”, Next Millennium Media connects their 500+ “handpicked” publishers to an impressive roster of advertisers, including Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, Disney, Delta and Nestle.

Who are these publishers? You can check them out in Next Millennium’s sellers.json here, but here are the highlights:

Next Millennium Media works with the following fake news rings…

Economic Advisors, Inc.

100percentfedup.com, americanlookout.com, noahreport.com, protrumpnews.com, thepalmierireport.com, benny.com, thelibertydaily.com

wnd, LLC

wnd.com, debka.com (note: the same LLC also operates israelnationalnews.com)

Zerohedge LLC

zerohedge.com, kitco.com

VIP Ad Solutions, LLC

analyzingamerica.org, sarahpalin.com, diamondandsilk.com, savagetakes.com, chicksonright.com, breakingreports.org 


welovetrump.com, dailytruthreport.com

Trending Politics

trending politics.com, grahamallen.com

Next Millennium Media also works with the following disinformation outlets: 

  • One America News Network (OANN), which is now being sued by Dominion Voting Systems over false claims of rigged voting machines.

  • TheNationalPulse.com, an outlet that currently co-hosts Steve Bannon’s War Room, whose host incited the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection.

  • Whatfinger.com, which cross-promotes every kind of disinformation under the sun.

  • Unzensuriert.at, an Austrian hate, disinformation, and very anti-vaxx outlet.

  • RedStateWatcher.com, which like many of the above outlets, features on Iffy News’ Index of Unreliable Sources.

We asked Kargo for comment. They replied: 

“Kargo vets every site within an intermediary individually and selects only specific sites that pass our qualitative and quantitative requirements. Only a small handful of sites were accepted and none of them were the sites in question.”

OK, and how do they vet them? 

“Every website is hand selected and is graded on a monthly basis per the pub scorecard… The pub scorecard assesses for factors including data such as viewability, IVT, response rate and scale, alongside assessments made by Kargo’s mobile advertising experts, such as brand safety.”

OK, so they don’t have any internal standards or definition for fake news. They’ve outsourced the work of identifying fake news to 3rd parties. Is that correct?

We do both.” 

OK, so who the f&*% is Kargo working with?

This leaves us with more questions than answers.

Kargo has made some pretty bold claims on transparency, going so far as to issue a press release that they were the first platform to achieve 100% ads.txt compliance. But since then, it looks like they’ve haven’t applied this to their sellers.json. 

Citing tweets from Jud Spencer, Principal Software Engineer at The Trade Desk, Kargo told us that their sellers.json labels “are not regularly reviewed” because they  “are not actively in use” and “do not affect any bidding decisions.”

But that’s just not true. Google literally offers targeting filters based on these labels. Advertisers rely on automated buying decisions which rely on these labels. Ads.txt is functionally useless if advertisers can’t cross-check with their ad exchange’s Sellers.json file. 

In other words, labels are everything. They tell advertisers who their ad exchanges are partnered with. They tell us what publishers their partners are partnered with. And it signals to advertisers that their ad buys are safe and that their ad dollars are flowing to the right places.

Kargo understands all this. At least they appeared to at one point in time.

“What we’re seeing is a flight to quality, people asking tougher questions like ‘Who are your publishers?’ ‘What is the quality?’” Kargo CEO Harry Kargman told CNBC back in 2016 as he pitched his product to terrified advertisers.

So yeah, that’s actually a great question and the point of this entire post: Who are Kargo’s publishers?

Thanks for reading, 

Nandini & Claire

Note: Aug 11, 2021 we updated this post a few hours after publication to clarify that Kargo's comments and Jud Spencer’s tweet were about Sellers.json, not Ads.txt.

OpenWeb Looks A Lot Like An OpenScam

How can you solve the “online toxicity crisis” when you’re openly funding it?

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us: 

This week’s investigation is a collaboration with Gizmodo.

UPDATE (8/4/21): OpenWeb says they’ve “terminated” 13 publisher relationships and are updating their publisher policies, following our report. Read their statement here.

Last summer, as the Facebook ad boycott was set to launch, audience engagement platform Spot.IM re-launched itself as OpenWeb. 

Their timing? Impeccable. It was June 2020 and the #StopHateForProfit campaign had just begun its historic push to boycott Facebook for its role in promoting hate speech. Advertisers, faced with a public reckoning, were seriously exploring what their options might be outside the walled gardens of Facebook and Instagram.

Their messaging? Pitch perfect. Their statements read more like an activist’s manifesto than an adtech platform that has raised $73M in VC funding

“The movement to Stop Hate for Profit is a long and serious one that starts and ends with each of us,” wrote co-founder Nadav Shoval. “We can boycott and sign petitions, and we can make changes in how we use and activate the web. But to function well as a society we need more choices on where to communicate.”

More choices, and OpenWeb wanted you to know they were it. They showed up with the deliverance that nervous marketers were searching for.

“At OpenWeb… we’re creating environments that constantly spur quality conversations—and keep them going. Helping publishers host the engaging discussions the public is starving for, right beside the stories everyone wants to talk about,” read their mission statement. 

Big, if true. There’s just one problem… It doesn’t seem to be.

In this week’s BRANDED, we’re diving into OpenWeb’s Sellers.json, a public record of seller information, which shows that they’re working with exactly the same kind of hate and disinformation outlets that advertisers are seeking protection from.

A “virtuous” ecosystem for advertisers

First, what is OpenWeb? It’s a commenting system (“audience development platform”) designed to keep users commenting directly on-site rather than move those conversations on social media. And of course, they serve ads.

For publishers, having a space for comments means readers can stay longer on the site and see more ads (revenue!). For advertisers, OpenWeb promises a blissfully brand safe alternative to the unpredictable, volatile social media environments of Twitter and Facebook. (We do not have time in this post to discuss the other big part of their business model: 1st party data, which will allow them to identify and track you in the so-called “cookieless” future.)

And at the crux of all this? Premium, high-quality publishers like Refinery29, Salon, Hearst, NewsCorp and CBS. The ones that promote quality conversations not overt racism, trolling, bullying and obscenities.

OpenWeb says they have productized brand safe environments using words like: 

  • user modeling

  • multi-layered automatic moderation

  • sorting and exposure algorithms

  • trajectory projection

A lot of big words there. Let’s look at how all this shakes out on the other end:

OpenWeb is in an OpenRelationship with disinformation

As of July 14, OpenWeb’s sellers.json reports direct seller relationships with at least a dozen universally brand-unsafe outlets like:

  • Revolver News — a site run by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie that promotes conspiracy theories about white genocide and that it was FBI agents who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

  • The Post Millennial — a Canadian outlet that the CBC found to blur the lines ”between journalism and conservative 'pamphleteering'” — and that’s not counting the daily barrage of hateful and transphobic headlines

  • Canada Free Press — a Canadian outlet that’s currently running the headline, “Is Devilish China the Globe’s Most Evil State?”

  • Silver Doctors — a ZeroHedge-like website that publishes bullshit economic conspiracy theories and claims that “America is finished, as are white people”

  • Steve Gruber — an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist appearing on Real America’s Voice, an outlet that was recently dropped by Havas & Horizon Media after our BRANDED investigation)

  • Wayne Dupree — a sister outlet to SebGorka operated by Salem Media Network. With headlines like “One Funny and Savvy Trump Supporter Just Figured Out The“Formula” With Biden and Election Audits” (haha!)

  • Drew Berquist — an outlet that hosts its own disinformation, and also links heavily to Lifezette, Wayne Dupree and Red Voice Media

  • Rob Maness — an outlet with layout, content and links so similar to Drew Berquist, it is likely operated by the same organization

But what seems bad gets worse. OpenWeb’s sellers.json reveals that they have relationships with a series of “publishers” who are not publishers at all.

The following are all dark pool sales houses, or in other words, intermediaries to hundreds of unrelated publishers that OpenWeb has no control over. What does that mean? When OpenWeb approved the following entities into their inventory, those entities opened the floodgates to even more disinformation outlets.

  • PublisherDesk sells ads for PoliticalCowboy.com, Politichicks.com and DailySurge.com.

  • Liftable Media sells ads forWestern Journal.

  • Aditude.io sells ads forThe Post Millennial and The Daily Wire

Whether they approved or not, OpenWeb is working with all these outlets now too.

As far as transparency goes, this is a pretty big blow to advertisers. They think their ads are being placed directly with vetted publishers, and they pay a premium for that. Instead, it’s the same old shenanigans.

Is anyone at OpenWeb actually clicking on the websites?

So all this begs the question… how do these websites get approved in the first place? We asked co-founder Roee Goldberg. First, he told us: 

We have a strong internal standards policy for all new partnerships. As a part of this policy, we consult several databases and indexes that compile and monitor fake news, hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy websites. And, while an audit of our more than 1,000 publisher partners has been completed, I appreciate you bringing these cases to light and expressing your concerns regarding these sites.”

So we asked again, more specifically this time: “Do you have a human looking at these websites?” He replied:

Our team uses a variety of credible third-party indexes of fake news, conspiracy, and hate websites—like Columbia Journalism Review—as a validator. If a prospect is designated as, for instance, fake news or conspiracy, we will decline their interest. If a partner is designated as such, we will terminate our partnership with them quickly as we have done and are continuing to do.”

We’ll take that as a no. Nobody looks at them. Perhaps this is why OpenWeb’s sellers.json contains records of websites that don’t even exist (like 12tribefilms.org) and websites that forward to other websites (makingweb.com)

So much for saving online conversations. 

Deliverance isn’t here. At least not yet.

It isn’t news that adtech platforms pass the buck to advertisers however they can, but the OpenWeb situation feels just a little slimier than usual because of their over-the-top claims that they’re funding a healthier, safer web.

In April 2021, OpenWeb brought on Professor Scott Galloway as an investor and board director, who took OpenWeb’s positioning one step further:

The comments on an article can be as engaging as the content itself. But that engagement can be akin to the noxious emissions of social media. It doesn’t have to be this way. OpenWeb is to social media, what alternative energies are to fossil fuels.” (Scott Galloway in OpenWeb’s April 22 press release)

This is the kind of rhetoric that makes advertisers feel safe. They may believe that they can finally put away their magnifying glass and cross line-item ad checks off their to-do lists. Finally, a platform they can trust to do the work for them. 

But OpenWeb isn’t doing that work.

For what it’s worth, OpenWeb removed Silver Doctor and Canada Free Press from their inventory after we contacted them. They claim they have declined to work with Breitbart and Newsmax because they don’t meet OpenWeb’s exacting standards.

They have promised to launch a formal investigation of their partners, even though they just completed a publisher audit. To us, none of it seems to add up.

Check your ads.


Nandini and Claire 

2 interesting ways Seb Gorka, a Nazi, is collecting your ad dollars

How the ad exchanges are sending your money to a very bad man

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us: 

Seb Gorka is a neo-Nazi. This is not an opinion or a personal interpretation. It’s a well-documented fact. 

He has worked closely with antisemitic politicians and written for openly antisemitic newspapers. He has publicly worn Nazi insignia. When asked about it, he has said he inherited the insignia on the “merits of [his] father,” who was a member of the Hungarian neo-Nazi group the Vitézi Rend. There is strong evidence that Gorka himself has sworn a lifetime oath to the group.

If that isn’t enough, he publicly incited and encouraged the January 6th insurrection, claiming that “patriots” have “taken over Capitol Hill.” He has also publicly promoted voter fraud disinformation on his website, SebGorka.com. 

All this makes him extremely — as we like to say in the advertising biz — brand unsafe. Even YouTube has banned him. But that hasn’t stopped Seb Gorka from running a profitable disinformation outlet. With help from a handful of adtech companies that either don’t know or don’t care about where your ad dollars go, Seb Gorka is cashing in.

How is this happening? There are two ways: an obvious way and a less obvious fraudy way. We’re going to explore both of them here. Grab some popcorn, we’re going to defund a Nazi today, folks!

1. The normal, regular ad placement method (simple!)

Ad placements are the obvious way SebGorka.com makes money. The following companies are serving ads on SebGorka.com, in violation of their own Publisher Policies and Acceptable Use Guidelines:

  • Criteo (of course)

  • Taboola 

  • Google

  • The Trade Desk 

How do we know this? We hovered over the ads and took screenshots. You already know how all this works. It gets more interesting from here.

2. The shady revenue-sharing ring method (sketchy!)

SebGorka.com doesn’t just earn money through ad placements.

SebGorka.com also monetizes by using shared DIRECT IDs — an ID meant for one publisher — across a shared pool of unrelated websites. This practice not only artificially inflates its CPM rates (cost per thousand impressions), but also allows it to get paid untraceable sums of money by an LLC.

Let’s break this down together.

Remember ads.txt?

We’ve talked about ads.txt before, but it’s important for us all to understand what a hot mess it really is. 

Ads.txt is a protocol developed by IAB Tech Lab to bring transparency to the supply chain. An advertiser should be able to cross-check a publisher’s ads.txt directory against each exchange’s counterpart directory, known as sellers.json. If the data matches up, this tells the advertiser that things are fine.

In theory, these two specs allow advertisers and ad exchanges to verify that their ads are being placed on the correct inventory and that they’re paying the correct company. Here’s what this is supposed to look like when it’s working:

In sellers.json, sellers can list themselves as one of three Seller Types (“seller_type”).

Publisher: If a seller is listed as a PUBLISHER, that means

  • the publisher owns the site

  • the money you spend is going directly to the publisher

Intermediary:  If a seller is listed as an INTERMEDIARY, that means 

  • the seller does not own the website or app which contains the inventory

  • the seller is paid indirectly for inventory

Both: The seller has been approved by the ad exchange both as a PUBLISHER and INTERMEDIARY

Why does any of this matter? Because advertisers are willing to pay a premium for DIRECT and PUBLISHER ads because it signals to them that they have 1) a higher quality audience and 2) less potential for fraud.

But in practice, publishers like SebGorka.com have correctly surmised that ad exchanges aren’t performing the necessary checks — which means they’re able to declare themselves DIRECT and PUBLISHER across an unlimited number of websites and funnel the revenues into a single shared account.

In Australia, this is formally recognized as a form of ad fraud, and is illegal. In America, this is still just uh… fraudy.

Here’s what we found in SebGorka.com’s ads.txt

We looked at the DIRECT IDs on SebGorka.com — and it tells us an interesting story:

  1. SebGorka.com is sharing DIRECT IDs with a number of local CBS, ABC, and NBC news affiliates. 

  2. Frankly Media LLC appears to be employing these shared DIRECT IDs for lot of publishers. Check out this list of Google results for just one ID.

  3. Frankly Media is owned by Engine Media Holdings, a publicly traded company on Toronto’s TSX Venture Exchange. 

And in the middle of it all are the ad exchanges.

Here’s what’s going on in SebGorka.com’s ads.txt

The following companies are allowing mislabeling, which lets publishers get away with misrepresenting themselves and misleads advertisers into thinking they’re paying for direct inventory when the reality is anything but:


It’s fraudy because: Only publishers should be calling themselves “publishers”. Frankly Media is not a publisher. This could be an attempt to defraud not-so-vigilant buyers and suppliers with poor supply optimization. Also Frankly Media is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com

Let’s continue…


It’s fraudy because: Frankly Media is not a publisher, and certainly not a publisher of Newsweek. Also Frankly Media is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com


It’s fraudy because: Frankly Inc. (what happened to Frankly Media LLC???) is not a publisher, and certainly not a publisher of 41NBC. Also Frankly Media is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com.


It’s fraudy because: Frankly Media LLC is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com.


It’s fraudy because: Frankly Media LLC is not a PUBLISHER of SebGorka.com and Frankly Media LLC is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com


It’s fraudy because: Engine Media is not a DIRECT seller of SebGorka.com.

Is Frankly Media LLC a dark pool sales house?

It sure looks like Frankly Media LLC has been going around to all the ad exchange and telling some fibs. 

They’ve told some of them that they own and operate SebGorka.com — but they don’t. They’re telling others that they are both PUBLISHER and INTERMEDIARY for SebGorka.com — and that’s not true either (SebGorka.com is owned by Salem Media Group).

But one thing is probably true: Frankly Media LLC and/or its parent company Engine Media Holdings is making payouts to SebGorka.com. But how much? This is where we hit a dead end.

Frankly Media LLC is what we call a dark pool sales house. We don’t know how much it’s earning for SebGorka.com through this revenue-sharing ring and we don’t know how it’s distributing the collective proceeds across its members. 

Maybe they have a profit-sharing contract? Maybe they pay out SebGorka.com through yet another shell company? Anyone looking at these records would never know.

So what do we do now?

What we’ve just uncovered is a Nazi infiltrating the adtech supply chain through the very pipelines designed to keep someone like him out of it. If Frankly Media LLC can use the same DIRECT ID across NBC affiliates and a Nazi’s media outlet, we are in trouble.

Last summer when we first reported on ads.txt revenue-sharing, we noted the national security implications of not knowing where our advertiser dollars are being funneled: 

One of the reasons that this is still legal, or not explicitly known to be illegal, is that ads.txt is only three years old and there hasn’t been, to our knowledge, any major investigative research into the consequences of its design… Ads.txt is a global standard, used in international markets. This giant security hole opens markets and mediascapes around the world to foreign propaganda, hate groups, money laundering, and, of course, fraud.

If ad exchanges don’t enforce ads.txt, all these problems run rampant. 

Once again, it’s up to us, the advertisers, to take charge of our own ads. If you want to keep your ad budgets away from Seb Gorka, you will have to add the website “SebGorka.com” to your exclusion list. You will also need to block Frankly Media and its DIRECT seller ID’s. You can find them at sebgorka.com/ads.txt.

Thanks for reading, 

Nandini & Claire


NOTE: Originally, the first sentence of this post said “Seb Gorka is a Nazi.” We have updated this to read “neo-Nazi” because it is debated whether the word Nazi is a general term for someone’s ideology or if it refers specifically to a member of the historic National Socialist German Workers' Party of Germany.

Did you like this issue? Then why not share! Please send tips, compliments and complaints to @nandoodles and @catthekin

It's wild how these adtech platforms are violating U.S. sanctions against Russia

Placing ads with the enemy

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us: 

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Treasury made a very rare move. They announced new sanctions against a Russian disinformation operation — and they named names. They don’t usually do that.

In an April 15 press release, they called out four outlets operated by Russian Intelligence Services for attempting to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections: Newsfront, SouthFront, InfoRos, and Strategic Culture Foundation.

The press release goes on to explain that the Russia-backed effort has been operating “a network of websites that obscure their Russian origin to appeal to Western audiences.” The outlets focus on amplifying divisive issues in the United States, denigrating U.S. political candidates, and disseminating false and misleading information.

You’ll never believe what happened next. All the adtech platforms got together and immediately pulled the websites from their inventory so they could ensure a continued brand safe environment for their clients.

Haha just kidding. They either don’t know or don’t care, and are now illegally transacting with a Russian influence operation on the U.S. sanctions list. Technically, this puts them on the hook for civil and criminal penalties of up to twenty years imprisonment and $1,000,000 in fines per violation.

This BRANDED, we’re going to explore the most extreme brand crisis we’ve seen yet: one that not only undermines our brands, but our democratic process — and could result in the opening of a federal investigation.

Let’s check out the companies propping up SouthFront.

Wow, this is really bad

In our research, we found that over a dozen adtech companies are still serving SouthFront, a disinformation outlet described by the U.S. Treasury as follows:

SouthFront is an online disinformation site registered in Russia that receives taskings from the FSB. It attempts to appeal to military enthusiasts, veterans, and conspiracy theorists, all while going to great lengths to hide its connections to Russian intelligence. In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, SouthFront sought to promote perceptions of voter fraud by publishing content alleging that such activity took place during the 2020 U.S. presidential election cycle.

Using Adalytics, we have been able to confirm the following companies are actively working with Southfront: 

  • Google 

  • RhythmOne 

  • OpenX (they dropped the site after we contacted them for comment)

  • Taboola via Disqus Reveal

  • Sovrn

  • AcuityAds

  • Criteo

  • The Trade Desk

  • Xandr (formerly AppNexus)

  • NextRoll (formerly AdRoll) 

What’s the excuse this time? Maybe they “just didn’t catch this one”? Maybe it slipped through their “rigorous” vetting process? Those responses may not work this time. This isn’t just another brand safety mishap. These platforms are performing illegal transactions on behalf of their clients — all while dragging their clients’ brands through the mud. 

The Department of State already identified some of these media outlets as disinformation last August. And this isn't the first time that brands have unwittingly funded Russian propaganda.

Since the Sleeping Giants campaign, advertisers have invested heavily in brand safety solutions to make sure they wouldn’t be caught out again. That makes this ad-placements-on-an-illegal-Russian-disinformation-operation both a monumental business and legal cluster*&^k.

It also presents an opportunity for us to talk about an uncomfortable truth: the advertising industry has no blueprint, plan, or even the slightest idea of how to stop the flow of millions of ad dollars towards disinformation.

How did all these companies miss this? 

The answer is straightforward. What do you do when you know there is a multi-billion dollar market opportunity for a problem but you don’t have a solution for it? You fake it till you make it. You make things up as you go along. And you project a hell of a lot of confidence in a solution you know doesn’t work.

That’s what’s happening here.

Brand safety technology can’t actually identify disinformation

Brand safety vendors talk endlessly about the importance of protecting your brand from “fake news.” They release endless studies about it. This is to distract you from realizing how limited their capabilities really are.

Even after years of product development, the only thing their technology can technically do is identify hateful or inflammatory content — which can intersect with disinformation. In a blog post, Integral Ad Science explains that their tech can “effectively tackle the controversial side of fake news, for example hate speech and offensive language.” They confirm this in their Media Quality Report. 

(Sidebar: Wtf is the “controversial side” of fake news?) 

They appear to be powerless to surface disinformation that doesn’t use foul language — like SouthFront. 

IAS’s competitor, DoubleVerify doesn’t appear to fare much better. Their technology can identify “inflammatory, politically-charged stories,” but their sales pitch shies away from claiming they can identify false stories and disinformation efforts that use normal, everyday language. 

For all their fearmongering,  Oracle Data Cloud doesn't even mention disinformation as one of the biggest on-going sources of reputational harm.

Oh well, at least they’re finding the hate speech? No, not that either. In their press release, the Director of National Intelligence describes a series of tactics that should have been flagged up by even the most basic brand safety technology. 

These publishers:

  • Make people lose confidence in the elections

  • Make people lose faith in COVID vaccines 

  • Inflame racial tensions and violence 

It really makes you wonder: What exactly are you paying them for?

Adtech platforms don’t have a clue what disinformation is

The folks tasked with protecting your brand are spitballing.

“The truth is that fake news is a very difficult thing to classify, because what one person sees as fake news, another person may see as legitimate,” says Integral Ad Science in a blog post titled “Everything You Wanted To Know About Fake News.”

No. One man’s fake news is not another man’s real news, Brad. Disinformation is not just a bad opinion; it’s a well-defined and documented tactic used by bad actors to accelerate antisocial outcomes.

This is just not the big, messy dilemma adtech leaders want it to be. Journalistic standards exist. Working definitions of disinformation developed by respected researchers exist. The Media Manipulation Casebook literally has a glossary of case studies and definitions available, free of charge. 

There are answers and solutions here. But it seems adtech companies would rather default to whatever is more profitable for them, at the expense of their customers. 

Magnite (formerly Rubicon Project) bizarrely admits that disinformation doesn’t violate their brand safety standards: “Though we’re committed to preventing the monetization of content that’s clearly extreme, we don’t see it as our role to remove content that falls short of that mark but is simply untrue or even offensive,” writes Magnite CTO Tom Kershaw in a July 2020 post.

Tell that to the Director of National Intelligence, Tom.

The industry doesn’t have a working definition of disinformation

There are only a few associations in the industry that have any real clout in the room. The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) is one of them. 

Last summer, a WFA initiative called GARM (Global Alliance for Responsible Media) launched an updated set of definitions for harmful content they intended for Facebook, Twitter and the wider adtech industry to adopt. They fully left out disinformation. As Nandini commented on business TV show MoneyTalks, “we thought they’d be further along by now.” 

We don’t know what happened on those GARM Zoom calls. But we do know that their new standards are toothless, particularly if they’ve left advertisers with brand safety standards that don’t account for COVID disinformation, anti-vaccination content, election disinformation and conspiracy theories.

There is one small light though: a 4As whitepaper with a fleshed out definition of disinformation and misinformation that advertisers could actually use. It provides us with a never-before seen level of clarity:

Misinformation and Disinformation are defined as the presentation of verifiably false or misleading claims that are likely to cause harm:

  • Misleading content: Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual 

  • Imposter content: genuine sources that are impersonated 

  • Fabricated content: New false content 

  • False connection: headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content 

  • False Context: genuine content that is shared with false contextual information 

  • Manipulated content: genuine information or imagery that is manipulated to deceive

It’s still sitting there, not yet adopted by GARM. Without the inclusion of this kind of definition, adtech people will continue to hem and haw about bias, opinions, and free speech. But with a working definition, we stand a real chance of stopping ad-funded disinformation.

We’re paying a disinformation tax

This is not the first time we’ve said this: the $300 billion digital advertising industry is a national security threat. 

There is no system in the world that is more opaque, unregulated, and so actively working against our interests as businesses and as a nation. There is no system in the world that makes turning against our own country the default setting.

As advertisers, we are all now locked into paying a disinformation tax. We’re in a system that tricked the Biden campaign to pay for Breitbart ads. We’re in system that enables Breitbart to keep collecting ad dollars long after advertisers thought they blocked them. We’re in a system where we have to pay to protect our brands, and have no recourse when they fail us.

How much have these adtech companies already funneled to Russian operatives? How many of us have participated in an illegal transaction we had no idea about? And how much longer would it have gone on if we weren’t publishing this article today? 

We should not have to choose between advertising and not undermining the pillars of our democracy. The sooner we admit that there is no plan, the sooner we can start working towards real solutions. 

For now, we have two action items for you: 

  • Check your ads. Find out if you have had your ads placed on any of the four sites above.

  • If you find your ads on these sites, ask for a refund. It’s the American way. 

As always, thanks for reading,

Nandini and Claire 

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Oh no, they let us testify at the EU Parliament!

And you better believe we named names and called out Google.

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us: 

🔥 We also learned that we’ve been nominated for Innovator of the Year in AdWeek’s Reader Choice Awards. If you have a moment, please vote for us! We appreciate your support.🔥

We’re bringing you a special edition of BRANDED this week.

Yesterday, Nandini, along with Clare Melford, Co-Founder of the Global Disinformation Index, and Director of Government Affairs & Public Policy at Google Ghita Harris-Newton testified for the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation.

That’s a mouthful! But what it means is that she got to virtually take the floor at the European Parliament in Brussels and loudly advocate for — who else? — brands and advertisers.

Each expert had 10 minutes to explain ad tech before they were pummeled with two rounds of questions. You can watch the recording here (Nandini starts at 16:24).

Or read the full statement here:

The statement

My name is Nandini Jammi. I run Check My Ads, a consultancy that helps companies keep their ads off hate and disinformation. 

Before the 2016 U.S. elections I was working as a marketer for a tech startup. After the 2016 U.S. elections, I took on a second voluntary role: I began co-running Sleeping Giants, an anonymous social media campaign that centered around making one website, Breitbart.com, unprofitable.

Breitbart had become one of the most influential propaganda outlets in the U.S. by November 2016, by putting out false and intentionally misleading “news” stories designed to misinform and inflame the public. 

These tactics worked. They worked so well that Breitbart is widely credited with helping Trump win the election through the use of false narratives, the chaos and confusion they sowed in the traditional media ecosystem and the environment of fear and hatred they cultivated across our country.

Their disinformation operation was so successful that they announced plans to expand into Germany and France ahead of their national elections. 

At the time, they looked unstoppable. 

But what I saw when I visited this website was that it was full of ads — and that in fact, advertising revenues were how they were sustaining their growth. I also knew that given how ads are placed at scale across the internet today, that it was very unlikely that the advertisers were even aware their ads were running on — let alone funding the growth and success of this website.

Under the pseudonym Sleeping Giants, my campaign co-founder and I began taking screenshots of ads on Breitbart and alerting advertisers on Twitter — and found that we were correct. It didn’t matter who you were — small businesses, multinational corporations, non-profits, government agencies — even the largest and most sophisticated marketing organizations in the world were unaware that their ads were being automatically placed alongside bigoted, hateful and racist content. 

During the course of our campaign, over 4000 advertisers and over 30 ad exchanges blocked Breitbart from their media buys. Breitbart was projected to make $8 million in revenue in 2017. Instead, they lost 90% of their projected revenue within just 3 months as a direct result of our campaign.

Just as importantly, they abandoned their plans to open outlets in Germany and France. At Sleeping Giants, we successfully curbed the growth trajectory of one of the largest vectors of disinformation in our country. 

Our campaign also established a precedent: that advertisers overwhelmingly do not want their budgets to fund hate, disinformation or election interference. 

But despite universal consensus across the advertising industry, the flow of ad dollars towards disinformation continues every single day. In fact, every advertiser running an ad campaign on the open web today - whether it’s your neighborhood yoga studio or a multinational corporation - is funding disinformation by default.

Think of it as a tax that advertisers are being forced to pay because the digital advertising supply chain refuses to do its job. No reputable advertiser wants anything to do with disinformation. But their ad budgets has been hijacked by a handful of adtech companies who are forcing brands to take the hit for their negligence.

Stopping the flow of ad dollars towards disinformation has now become both a personal and professional mission for me. 

As an activist, I view disinformation as a threat to our collective public safety and our democratic process. And as a brand safety consultant to some of the biggest brands in the world, I view this as a solvable business problem. 

How programmatic advertising works

Let me take a moment to explain programmatic advertising. It has a lot of moving parts, but I’m going to keep simple today and focus on what matters.

Advertising is really just about connecting two players: Publishers & Advertisers. Publishers have the audience. Advertisers want to pay to get in front of that audience. 

Now, before the internet, advertisers would make media buys - they would make direct deals with newspapers, magazines, billboards, wherever they want to be. It was manual and it was time-consuming, but they did know where their ads were being placed.

Ad exchanges

What ad exchanges brought to the table was the promise of efficiency. 

They said: “You know what? Let us make this efficient for you. We have a pool of publishers in our inventory and we can place those ads for you. You can reach anyone, anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost. You just tell us your budget and we’ll take care of it.” This was revolutionary. 

They made these tools available to everybody. And by they, I mean mostly Google. Your average small business could now place their ads not just in hundreds of places but across hundreds of thousands of webpages all at once.

You can think of it as going shopping in the supermarket. You walk into a supermarket assuming they adhere to basic food safety standards. You assume their employees regularly check on inventory, you assume you won’t accidentally go home with a bag of moldy bread. It’s the supermarket’s job to provide you with safe, fresh food, right?

Now what if you went to a supermarket that doesn’t check their inventory? And also stocks the shelves with expired and recalled foods because they think it’s a “gray area” and they don’t want to stop you from buying it? How is the average shopper supposed to know what’s good and what shouldn’t be eaten?

Google and other ad exchanges have not been vetting their inventory adequately. Instead, they’ve pushed the responsibility to manage their growing inventory onto their customers.

As Google accepts more and more disinformation into their inventory, they want advertisers to find and block it themselves.

“Here, have more filters, more settings, more page-by-page granular control.”

This has become a core strategy in an industry that realizes they can continue to invite disinformation and extremism into their inventory (in the name of choice) while putting the onus on advertisers to sniff it out.

I can speak from experience: No marketing team in the world has the time, resources or expertise to seek out and block individual disinformation websites on the internet. Google does.

And today, Google is the biggest sponsor of disinformation in the world. And they’re doing it against the consent of their own customers.

Brand safety vendors 

So how do you get control over where your ads are placed? That’s where brand safety vendors have swooped in. Today, ad verification companies like Integral Ad Science, DoubleVerify and Oracle wield an enormous amount of power over how ad budgets are distributed across the internet.

We don’t see these decisions take place, but their brand safety algorithms scan every page and every piece of content we look at to decide whether it’s “safe” before serving an ad. These millions of little verdicts add up. They determine who on the web gets monetized — and who gets blocked. 

There’s just one problem: black box algorithms. These algorithms distribute billions of ad dollars across the web and we don’t know how their algorithms work and whether they even work accurately.

In fact, it doesn’t appear that they can tell the difference between “the promotion of disinformation” and “legitimate news coverage”

These companies claim that they can keep their clients’ ads away from disinformation, but we have evidence that suggests these algorithms are fundamentally broken. With research provided to us by adtech researcher Dr. Krzysztof Franaszek, we recently reported that:

  • Oracle marked nearly one-third (30.3%) of New York Times articles as unsafe, including 98% of  article by Marilyn Stasio, who reviews crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review.

  • Oracle marked one-fifth (21.4%) of The Economist as unsafe, including an article about molecular cells which was likely classified under “Death Injury, or Military Conflict” because it happened to mentioned “programmed cell death”  

An algorithm that can’t tell the difference between actual violence and news coverage? That’s not a very smart algorithm, is it?

Now, if these are the kinds of numbers we’re seeing for English language outlets, imagine how dismal the numbers must be in German, French, Italian, Spanish and so on. 

Additionally, none of these companies have a public disinformation policy, which is significant because according to Dr. Franaszek’s research, they are funneling their clients’ ad budgets towards disinformation at higher rates than the news: 

  • One America News Network (OANN.com), which is a critical vector of election disinformation was 88.5% safe

  • Hannity.com, whose figurehead denied and downplayed the pandemic since this spring was 60% safe.

  • TownHall.com, whose coverage of what they call the “Wuhan Virus” has been racist at best, was only 69.5% safe.

The cost of this faulty, broken technology is doing immeasurable damage to our free press. According research published in The Guardian, brand safety technology cost news publishers in the UK, US, Japan, and Australia, around $3.2 billion worth of digital revenues.

Advertisers are not in control

We often think of disinformation as a societal or political problem — and it is. But as I said before, I have come to see disinformation as a business problem. Advertisers have no idea how their money is being spent and enormous amounts of money are completely unaccounted for.

I’ll leave you with the story of one of our clients: We performed an ad audit for Headphones.com, a small business in Canada that sells high-end headphones. We identified disinformation in their ad spend, which prompted them to check their ads. After implementing our recommendations, their ad spend went down from $1200/day to $40/day with no change in performance. That means 95% of their ad spend had nothing to do with their success.

At every step of the way, the advertising supply chain is protecting its own interests while throwing advertisers under the bus. But advertisers care about their brands, they care about their customers, they care about their communities.

If and when advertisers get back control of their ads, I’m confident they’ll do the right thing.

Thank you for your time.

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Thanks for reading!

Nandini & Claire

Did you like this issue? Then why not share! Please send tips, compliments and complaints to @nandoodles and @catthekin


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