Episode Summary

By now, a lot of people are aware of and concerned about the lies, hatred, and rumors that are so rampant on social media. The social media companies are definitely responsible to a large degree for letting this happen. But they don’t deserve all the blame. There’s another sector of the internet economy that has been promoting and even paying the merchants of hatred and lies—the advertising technology business, better known as “Ad Tech.”

What is ad tech? Basically it’s the software and services behind the zillions of ads that are basically inescapable on the internet through a complicated system of exchanges and instantaneous bidding. These companies are known for their practice of tracking and spying on people’s browsing habits, but they also are, in many cases, lying to the advertisers themselves about their ads—who watches them and where they appear.

The long and short of it is that companies who advertise are often unaware that their advertising budgets are being used to subsidize bigoted and hateful content.

How this all works is very complicated but the good news is that there is something that we can all do to help stop these shady practices. In this episode, we feature Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin, the co-founders of Check My Ads, a new organization that’s working on helping organizations and individuals put an end to online bigotry.

The archived video stream of our conversation is below, a transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for joining me today, ladies.

CLAIRE ATKIN: Hi, good to be here.

NANDINI JAMMI: Thanks for having us.

SHEFFIELD: As I said in the intro, this is a complicated subject. And so I want to maybe go back a little bit in the history here of how web advertising works and how it used to work. Because ad tech is complicated, and a lot of people don’t even know it even exists.

So let’s maybe start with the background. The way that advertising used to work on the internet was that people who had websites [00:02:00] would sell space on their website to advertisers and they had ad salespeople and things like that. And gradually Google and some other companies came along and said: ‘You don’t have to do that. We can sell that space for you.’

And that’s how the technology behind ad tech began to emerge. But then it’s become gradually more and more complicated and using a system of instantaneous bidding. Do you guys want to do a little overview on how that works?

JAMMI: So yeah, the way that advertising works is, and the way that it has worked for the past 15 years or more, is that advertisers no longer place ads themselves on the internet. What happened is that they handed over control first to Google. Google was the first programmatic advertising company on the market, and changed the game, obviously.

And they hand over their ad placements to Google and other ad exchanges, which basically do the work for them. So what used to be manual is now programmatic. And what they do is place your ads across the internet for you and claim that it’s more efficient and that it gets you better results as a result of them placing these ads at scale.

Now what happened is that over time, these ad companies started to invite more publishers into their inventory and that made it very difficult for advertisers to really understand where their ads are going. If you have a site placement list of like over 400,000 websites, who’s going to ever check to see what those websites are, and what kind of content that they’re peddling?

So what happened really is over time, really large brands started to scale up their advertising, spending millions, and even collectively, billions of dollars and move their ad spend from other channels towards digital advertising. And they don’t know anymore where their ads are appearing on the internet.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s right. And the way it works is through this bidding, instantaneous bidding. You want to talk about that Claire, a little bit?

ATKIN: Sure. It’s just like the stock market. It’s called real-time bidding or RTB and it happens instantaneously. What happens is the advertisers who are being represented by ad tech companies will bid on a placement and it’s always on a per [00:04:00] placement basis. That is every unit of ad that you see that’s running around the web after you, every single one is getting bid on. And then the person who pays the most wins.

SHEFFIELD: So, the way it works, as you guys said, a lot of companies that are trying to advertise, they have no idea where their ads are showing up.

And you’ve got multiple companies now out there that are operating these things called exchanges. And basically they can be a way to mask publishers and things like that. And so that is something that is a problem for a lot of brands because their ads are ending up on websites that promote hatred or white nationalism or religious bigotry, things like that.

But if we could Dini, maybe talk a little about what you were doing before you guys started Check My Ads.

JAMMI: Sure. In 2016, I was a growth marketer for a small tech company, and in 2016 right after the elections, I went and visited Breitbart for the first time just to see what it was all about. And what I saw as a marketer, wasn’t just the headlines but the fact that it was plastered in ads from some of the biggest brands in the world. And this was jarring to me because I knew that these brands wouldn’t want their ads placed if they knew they were. And as a marketer who had myself run ad campaigns before, I knew that it was likely that they just weren’t checking to see their site placements module within their Google dashboards.

So knowing that they probably didn’t know where their ads were appearing, I began tweeting working on a campaign called Sleeping Giants and together with my partner at the time, we began to alert companies that their ads were appearing on Breitbart with a screenshot of their own ad next to some of these really incendiary and hateful headlines.

These advertisers were just shocked. They never knew that their ads could be appearing on that type of content. We would hear back from advertisers within minutes and hours. And people could see that this was really getting results.

Advertisers were blocking Breitbart instantly, so people joined us, started taking screenshots with us, and we were able to turn this [00:06:00] little action into a crowdsource campaign. We grew to over 400,000 followers and we were able to successfully confirm that over 4,000 advertisers blocked Breitbart from their media buy.

During this time, over 30 ad exchanges also dropped Breitbart, which meant that when an ad exchange drops a publisher, they lose access to thousands of ads and millions of bids and impressions. So that’s what happened. And then over time , we just kept running this campaign and I started to ask myself, at what point do we shut this thing down? How much longer do we have to keep working on alerting advertisers for them? Why can’t they get a handle of where their ads are appearing?

Because I wasn’t just seeing ads on Breitbart. I was also seeing ads on similar websites, like The Gateway Pundit. What Claire and I did was we — first of all, we decided we need to understand what’s going on in this ad tech industry, because this is something that they have the resources to take care of.

They’re talking about it. They’re holding conferences on brand safety, but they’re not fixing the problem on a very basic level. So we dug into the ad tech industry and then we started a newsletter called Branded so we could share what we were learning. Because what we were learning was really shocking. And we believed that marketers didn’t know this information and we needed to bring it out to them. So we launched Branded, our newsletter, and then after about six months or so, we decided to go from being activists and outside agitators to actually working with companies themselves, to help them get ahold of their ad buy.

I’ll let Claire jump in and talk about our nonprofit and how we got to that.

To view this content, you must be a member of Flux's Patreon at $3 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.