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BUSINESS | “Disinformation” services blacklist conservative websites to choke off billions in ad revenue
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What do the Federalist, the New York Post, Newsmax, The American Spectator, and the Daily Wire have in common? All are conservative-leaning publications that act as alternatives to the liberal mainstream media.
Recent visitors to the Federalist’s website, for example, would have been greeted by such headlines as “How Trump Derangement Gave Birth to the Censorship-Industrial Complex” and “Biden Pentagon Orders Military Chaplains To Bless Putting Male Soldiers in Female Showers and Bedrooms,” along with articles about Georgia elections, phonics instruction, and a faith-based maternity home.
Another commonality: These media outlets may be losing advertising revenue due to a third-party rating service created to defund online “disinformation.” The service, run by the London-based nonprofit Global Disinformation Index (GDI), has spotlighted the influence ad industry gatekeepers have on internet content: According to GDI’s most recent assessment, the websites advertisers should avoid all happen to be conservative.
GDI rates sites in order to deter, by its estimate, the quarter of a billion dollars annually in ad revenue that goes to sites with “an intentionally misleading narrative which is adversarial against democratic institutions, scientific consensus or an at risk group.” Much of its research has looked at topics such as election information, the war in Ukraine, and LGBTQ issues. GDI recently drew congressional ire after a report showed the U.S. State Department has funded some of its operations.
Ad exchanges promise online eyeballs to advertisers. With the rapid growth of websites in the early 2000s, advertisers turned to exchanges to help them choose from myriad sites willing to host ads. After identifying their desired audience—say, males aged 29 to 50 who work in the auto industry—advertisers pay a fee to an exchange that gives their ads access to relevant websites. According to Leon Hitchens, marketing director for Digiboost, the exchanges allow for minimal guardrails such as keywords or topics that advertisers don’t want to appear near their ad, but the algorithms make most of the ad placement decisions.
“It’s like a black hole,” said Hitchens. “You don’t have a lot of control over where you advertise or how you advertise.”
Ad exchanges that use GDI’s ratings steer clear of sites the group has blacklisted for containing “disinformation.” GDI researchers say they make their assessment based on sites’ operational policies and practices, such as transparency, variety of sources cited, and the factual content of articles. Content on the riskiest sites, according to GDI, led with more sensational, biased, and negative content than did other sites the researchers sampled. Out of 69 U.S. websites the group reviewed and rated in its December 2022 report, the 10 judged most risky were conservative. The 10 sites judged least risky, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, skewed left. In theory, the poorly rated sites are losing advertisers and associated revenue.
Gatekeeper bias has long been a problem online, according to Daniel Lyons of the American Enterprise Institute’s Online Speech Project. “Advertisers, consumers, and IT departments lack the resources to review individual sites, so they reasonably rely on intermediaries such as GDI to filter unwanted content,” he wrote for AEI last month. “But when these intermediaries inadvertently or intentionally abuse their position, the victims have little recourse.”
The Washington Examiner revealed in February that GDI received $330,000 from two State Department–backed entities charged with combating propaganda and supporting democracy overseas. The National Endowment for Democracy severed future funding for GDI after Republican members of Congress assailed public funding used to censor speech.
“It ought to scare everybody in this country, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that the government is that involved in censoring speech,” Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., told the Examiner.
Microsoft’s president told Bloomberg News last September that the tech behemoth wouldn’t label content as true or false, but its Xandr advertising company used GDI’s reports to restrict advertising choices. Xandr reportedly rolled back its use of GDI ratings after being criticized for targeting conservative outlets.
Congressional representatives have called for increased regulation of tech giants. Meanwhile, pressure campaigns against conservative sites aren’t abating. Ad tech watchdog Claire Atkin on Feb. 27 slammed the Federalist for criticizing companies that make investment decisions based on social and environmental criteria instead of rates of return. Atkin said advertisers should demand refunds, and exchanges should permanently blacklist the Federalist. (Mollie Hemingway, the Federalist editor-in-chief, did not return a request for comment.)
When the tech sector restricts ads, however, it’s usually with an overly broad brush, according to Hitchens. “It’s a very ‘sledgehammer to the window’ thing.”
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