In the year since the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, plenty of people have done what they could to try to prevent a disaster like this from happening again. Fences were erected, security personnel braced for more violence, tech companies made… more algorithms meant to predict where mass riots could happen. For the most part, these solutions aim to keep violence to a minimum, but by the time they come face to face with a would-be rioter, it’s arguably too late.
The conspiracies, hoaxes, and other obvious bullshit that led people to the Capitol’s steps in the first place are still freely floating through cyberspace, radicalizing countless people in their wake. Even if the Capitol is never again targeted, there’s nothing stopping them from expressing those beliefs in some other violent way. Now, one player has come up with a pretty ingenious way to nip these conspiracies in the bud: targeting the ads keeping them bankrolled.
That’s the pitch rolled out this week by Check My Ads, a part-consultancy part-watchdog group that’s seeking to quash “the business of telling lies,” as the organisation concisely put it in an announcement this week.
“The J6 insurrection was fuelled by advertising dollars,” the announcement reads. “The Big Lie superspreaders raked in millions of dollars by dialling up the rage and anger across YouTube, Twitter and their own outlets — until it spilled out into real-world violence. What we saw that day was their business model at work.”
The business model fuelling the Charlie Kirks and Ben Shapiros of the world is often similar to the fuel keeping the lights on in the Gizmodos, Washington Posts, and LA Timeses of the internet too: digital ads. The one issue is that while you or I could tell a blog on InfoWars from a blog on the site you’re reading right now, digital ads don’t get routed by people. They’re routed by automated tech. And that automated tech has a nasty habit of diverting ad dollars to the worst parts of the internet; one recent report predicted that over $US1.6 ($2) billion in ad dollars ended up alongside some sort of misinformation in the past year. Without those dollars, outlets spreading and creating this misinformation get stymied — or in a perfect world, get wiped off the map entirely
Attacking ads might sound like an unusual approach, especially when Alex Jones is right there, just waiting for you to dunk on him. But the Check My Ads team has proof that it works. The group was co-founded by Nandini Jammi, who had previously gained national notoriety as part of Sleeping Giants, a then-anonymous Twitter account that managed to shame thousands of brands into pulling their ads from Breitbart. Just two months after the campaign started, the outlet had reportedly lost about 90% of its ad revenue, making it that much harder to pump out the quality Breitbart content we all know and love.
That same Sleeping Giants playbook could work for those who helped fuel the insurrection, too. Check My Ads published a step-by-step guide for folks that want to reach out to one of the major ad players, OpenX, which is currently funelling its bucks towards the mouthpieces like Dan Bongino and Steve Bannon, whose outlets played a not insignificant part in promoting lies about election fraud.
The other half of the Check My Ads operation, Claire Atkin, put it concisely in a Twitter thread earlier this week: “it’s time to tell the advertising industry: we’ve seen enough. We want accountability. It’s time to cut them off,” she wrote. And it starts with sending an email.