Day 6·Q&A

Ad-tech watchdog looks to dismantle disinformation economy — by targeting ads on Fox News

The CEO and co-founder of Check My Ads, Claire Atkin, is trying to get ads taken down that help solidify Fox News’ online presence and spread of misinformation — specifically surrounding its coverage of the Jan. 6 hearings.

‘We're talking about a weapon of propaganda, and we want to cut them off from that arsenal,’ says Check My Ads

A woman walks outside Fox News Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City on Jan. 20, 2021. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

To stop the spread of misinformation surrounding the Jan. 6 hearings in the United States, a non-profit called Check My Ads is taking aim at Fox News online by going after its ad funding.

Co-founder and CEO Claire Atkin and her team are searching for adversiting technology (or ad-tech) companies that sell online ad space, and place those ads on Fox News. They then contact advertisers who may or may not know their ads are appearing on Fox's website, in the hopes they will remove them from the site. 

As an example of the misinformation, Tucker Carlson has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the Jan. 6 mob attack, and dug into conspiracy theories about the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Atkin, a Vancouver native, spoke with Day 6 host Saroja Coelho about Check My Ads' mission, and explains how the ad-tech industry works. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you tell me briefly what Check My Ads does? 

We monitor the $400-billion [U.S.] ad-tech industry, and our mission is to dismantle the disinformation economy. 

At the start of the Jan. 6 hearings, you announced that you'd be taking aim at Fox News online. Why? 

On the anniversary of Jan. 6, we launched a campaign to defund the insurrectionists. We targeted six people who made the most money off the ad-tech system by promoting what led to the violent insurrection.

Those people included Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk and Glenn Beck. And, over the course of the last few months, we have gotten them all defunded. We've gotten them all dropped from the ad exchanges that send them ads. Now our question is, how is Fox News different? 

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I want to take apart a little bit of how this works. You were speaking about the promotion of the idea that the [2020 U.S. presidential] election was stolen. But, if I go to the Fox News website there are all kinds of ads that appear. How do they land there? 

Yeah, advertisers don't place ads themselves on the internet. They basically have middlemen do that for them. They might go to an ad agency, and then the ad agency goes to ad exchanges.

These are big companies that collect advertisers and publishers' websites to put them together, basically to bid for ad space on websites. And, these ad exchanges have what they call publisher policies or supply policies.

In those policies, they say they don't work with any websites that publish things like election disinformation or racism and bigotry, and that the advertisers feel safe working with them.

What we're finding is that these ad exchanges have basically lied, and that they are sending ads to places that advertisers consider brand-unsafe. 

Check My Ads co-founder and CEO Claire Atkin says her company's purpose is to tear down the disinformation economy within the ad-tech industry. (Photo by Jon McMorran)

So, do the advertisers know that their ads are appearing on the Fox website? 

When advertisers want to advertise on Fox cable, like on the television shows, they have to choose to be there. But, when advertisers advertise on the internet, they often have no idea where their ads go.

And, that's really what we're talking about here. We're talking about the default settings that are sending advertisers — who think that their campaigns are brand safe — to places that promoted, supported and justified the violent insurrection. 

Who are you targeting in trying to bring down these ads? 

The people who are making the decisions about where the ads go are people who represent the ad exchanges. These are the big companies. What we're asking people to do is to join us to email, campaign and pressure the ad exchanges to uphold their own publisher policies, their own terms of service.

We're talking about Google and PubMatic, all of the different ad exchanges that have been working in relative obscurity. We're making them see the light of day. We're showing their business practices to the general public so they can be held accountable. 

Vice Chair Liz Cheney gavels the end of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on July 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images)

Some people are going to hear this and say that it's censorship, that you're silencing a perspective because you don't agree with it. What would you say to that? 

My reply is always that what we're fighting for here is transparency inside the advertising industry. We're fighting for advertisers to have the choice to advertise on places that promote violence or not.

Right now, our hypothesis has been proven out many times: advertisers don't want to be sponsoring violence and hate. When they have the choice, they choose not to. But right now, it's the advertisers' freedom of speech that has been taken away by these ad exchanges. 

How much revenue do these online ads bring for Fox News? 

Fox News is a giant conglomerate and it's likely that ad-tech supplies only about five per cent of their revenue. But, and this is important: the ad-tech industry is like a weapon of propaganda.

Propaganda needs three things to really thrive in the world. They need legitimacy. They need growth. They need to be able to target people who are susceptible to lies and disinformation.

What the ad-tech industry does is it offers them ads which give legitimacy. It gives an indication to the reader that Fox News is a legitimate place to receive news.

The ad-tech industry provides personal, identifiable information of internet users. What it does is allow them to better target people who are susceptible to lies and deceit. What we're talking about here is a weapon of propaganda, and we want to cut them off from that arsenal. 

What you're describing isn't a problem unique to the United States. Ads end up in surprising places here in Canada as well. But it seems impossible to go after every ad you see. What do you see as the solution?

The answer is to talk about the people who are the traffic controllers of the disinformation economy. What we do at Check My Ads is we don't play in the nuance. We're only talking about the people who are making the most money and doing the most damage, and creating the most real-world consequences.

We're talking about the rise in hate crimes. We're talking about the rise in transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, and the violence that is the insurrection. We're talking about the rise of global authoritarianism.

What we're doing is … really asking the people who are making the decisions to send them ads, money and data, and asking, "How does this square up with your purported business practices? Because it looks to us like you're saying one thing and doing another."

Written by Bob Becken. Produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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