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The Simple Way You Can Fight Back Against Fake News

Hit them where it hurts — their ad revenue.

Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr.

Advertising used to be straightforward. When you needed to sell a product, you found a place where potential customers spent their time and you placed an ad there. If customers read the Washington Post, you bought an ad in the Washington Post. If they watch “60 Minutes,” you bought an ad during “60 Minutes.”


But technology has changed how this process works. Ad networks like Google let you target demographic characteristics according to who you want to see your ad. They then find your audience and blast your ad all over the web to tons of different sites. Sites you may disagree with. Sites you may find immoral, even despicable. Sites that may hurt your brand for being associated with them — the opposite of the ad’s intention.

We’ve seen this occur with the explosion of fake news and political propaganda. These are articles published not to inform readers, but to sway political beliefs based on intentional falsehoods. One site, abcnews.com.co, is openly impersonating one of our nation’s premier news agencies to publish utterly fake stories, such as this one: “reporting” that President Obama ordered a special election. The scary thing is, digital ad networks drive these sites. One publisher of fake news recently told the Washington Post, “I make most of my money from AdSense — like, you wouldn’t believe how much money I make from it. Right now, I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.”

I can promise you, few companies want their ads associated with a fake news site. But, often unknowingly, they are. Google and Facebook announced plans to ban fake news sites from their ad platforms. But other, more-established websites still publish flagrantly inflammatory articles driven by digital ad platforms. A big one is Breitbart. Breitbart’s content is widely viewed as racist, white nationalistic, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ. It runs headlines such as:

“There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews”

“Planned Parenthood’s Body Count Under Cecile Richards Is Up To Half A Holocaust”

“Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy”

“Huma Abedin ‘Most Likely A Saudi Spy’ With ‘Deep, Inarguable Connections’ To ‘Global Terrorist Entity’”

What can we do about hateful, bigoted commentary? I was thrilled when I saw a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants. It’s an anonymous account whose goal is to “stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars.” It simply asks people to take a screenshot of an ad on Brietbart News, tweet that screenshot to the ad’s parent company to notify them of the placement, and tag Sleeping Giants in the tweet. Then the word spreads. Sleeping Giants promotes each tweet to its thousands of followers. It also offers simple instructions how to blacklist sites from your ad campaign, so your brand won’t show up on sites like Breitbart. The cool part is that it seems to be working.

Sleeping Giants claims that more than 100 brands blacklisted Breitbart, thanks to them. These are not small names. They include Kellogg’s, The Vanguard Group, U.S. Bank, Novo Nordisk, and Warby Parker. A lot of these companies didn’t even know their brands were being displayed on Breitbart. Some were shocked to find out. Nikos Moraitakis, CEO of Workable, told The New York Times he “nearly had a heart attack” when he saw his company’s ad on Breitbart. I have personally emailed folks at Target, Crowdrise, National Geographic, BarkBox, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and others to notify them about their ads being promoted on Breitbart. Crowdrise responded immediately and implemented the code to blacklist Breitbart.

A lot of people are concerned about recent events and want to do something. But they don’t know what. Well, here’s a simple idea that works. It’s powerful. It’s easy to execute. It harnesses the power of the crowd in a simple, nonviolent way. I, for one, am excited about it.

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