Major ad companies are increasingly seeking guidance from purportedly “nonpartisan” groups claiming to be detecting and fighting online “disinformation.” These same “disinformation” monitors are compiling secret website blacklists and feeding them to ad companies, with the aim of defunding and shutting down disfavored speech, according to sources familiar with the situation, public memos, and emails obtained by the Washington Examiner.
Affiliates of the U.K.-based Global Disinformation Index (GDI) have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars producing secretive lists of non-leftist news sites for large corporations to boycott. Corporate brands seek out ad companies to help promote their products online, and these ad companies are contracting with these “disinformation” tracking entities to tell them which websites they should avoid advertising on.
The Global Disinformation Index, a British group with two affiliated US nonprofit groups sharing similar board members, is one entity shaping the ad world behind the scenes. GDI’s CEO is Clare Melford, former senior vice president for MTV Networks, and its executive director is Daniel Rogers, a tech advisory board member for Human Rights First, a left-leaning nonprofit group that says disinformation fuels “violent extremism and public health crises.”
“It’s devastating,” Mike Benz, the State Department’s ex-deputy assistant for internal communications and information policy, told the Washington Examiner. “The implementation of ad revenue crushing sentinels like Newsguard, Global Disinformation Index, and the like has completely crippled the potential of alternative news sources to compete on an even economic playing field with approved media outlets like CNN and the New York Times.”
Such third-party entities blacklist conservative news sites that have resisted some of the false narratives and propaganda put forth by corporate media. The shadowy network of tracking groups labels the content on these independent news sites as disinformation so brands will not offer ads on their sites. The goal is to financially hurt independent publications and ultimately prevent them from disseminating content, the report explains.
While GDI claims to be nonpartisan, its leadership includes leftist activists, according to the report. Its advisory panel is also full of activists aligned with the left, including Meta’s — Facebook’s parent company — global lead for threat intelligence Ben Nimmo, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, and University of Washington Professor Franziska Roesner. Applebaum is known for pushing the Russia-collusion hoax as well as participating in the coordinated operation to suppress facts about the Biden family business. She later defended her support of that operation as not a big deal.
Along with similar organizations, GDI has been raking in cash as funding pours into disinformation tracking. Its charity in San Antonio, Texas, posted $345,000 in revenue in 2020, while its affiliated private foundation saw its roughly $19,600 revenue jump in 2019 to over $569,000 in 2020, according to tax records.
One influential ad company that has subscribed to GDI’s exclusion list to defund outlets purportedly spreading disinformation is Xandr, which Microsoft bought from AT&T in 2021 for $1 billion, according to emails leaked to the Washington Examiner.
Xandr informed companies in September 2022 that it would begin adopting GDI’s exclusion list to punish content that is “morally reprehensible or patently offensive,” lacking “redeeming social value,” or “could include false or misleading information,” emails show.
“To enforce this change, Xandr is partnering with the Global Disinformation Index (‘GDI’) and will be adopting their exclusion list,” Xandr wrote to other companies linking to an appeal “webform” for publishers to complete if they disagree with their “risk” rating.
GDI’s exclusion list of what it claimed were the “riskiest” and “worst” peddlers of what it called “disinformation” include media outlets known for their exhaustive and well-sourced reporting in opposition to information operations put out through corporate media. These information operations include the unsubstantiated claims that respected Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was a secret serial gang rapist, the completely debunked Russia-collusion hoax, and the poorly designed and implemented public health response to the Covid pandemic.
The list includes The Federalist, The American Spectator, Newsmax, The American Conservative, One America News, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, RealClearPolitics, Reason, and the New York Post.
This exclusion list is developed with oversight from GDI’s “advisory panel,” which counts journalists, professors, and data scientists, according to GDI reports. Three advisers include Ben Nimmo, global lead for threat intelligence at Facebook’s parent company Meta, journalist Anne Applebaum, who said Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings are not “interesting,” and University of Washington professor Franziska Roesner.
According to its website, GDI justifies this exclusion list by asserting without evidence that each of these 10 outlets “displayed some degree of cherry-picking facts, omitting relevant information, making unsubstantiated claims, and/or using logical fallacies. Many of the sites that regularly posted this kind of misleading, biased content also used sensational language to elicit an emotional response from the reader.”
In contrast, GDI also ranked what it claimed were the 10 “least risky” news outlets, which include some of the most politically biased outlets in journalism today: NPR, ProPublica, the Associated Press, Insider, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, HuffPost, and The Wall Street Journal. GDI claimed that each of these publications — most of which were well known for pushing the false Russia-collusion hoax, the false Kavanaugh rape smears, as well as routinely pushing Democrat talking points — show “minimal bias” and a lack of “sensational language” in their reporting.
There is no mention of the fact that most — if not all — of these outlets published many election-meddling false claims that the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story was “Russian disinformation” or spent the four years of the Trump presidency using loaded and “sensational language to elicit an emotional response from the reader” — that Donald Trump was a threat to democracy, an illegitimate president, and a toady for Russia.
Instead, publications with strong institutional legitimacy and award-winning journalism, such as The New York Post, whose reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop was finally vindicated, and RealClearPolitics, known for publishing rigorously reported articles on pressing issues of the day, were labeled as “high risk” to potential readers.
GDI is not alone among groups blacklisting certain websites while coordinating with ad companies.
Another is DoubleVerify, a $4 billion publicly traded company that operates an “inflammatory news index” that clients can gain access to. Content from websites gets added to the index if it contains “blatant opinion statements in non-editorial content,” violence incitement, or “the use of slurs when referring to public figures,” according to DoubleVerify.
DoubleVerify, which posted its highest revenue of $112 million in November 2022, does not publicize outlets or content on its index.
However, Breitbart and Newsbusters, as well as the left-leaning website RawStory, have been included in it, according to a 2016 Wired report. So has WND.com, DoubleVerify told the New York Times in 2016.
GDI and DoubleVerify are also linked to Integral Ad Science, an ad verification company worth over $1.6 billion that uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to rate alleged disinformation. IAS uses a technology that blocks ads from appearing on client pages deemed “too risky for their brand,” according to a 2017 report.
IAS, which partners with the GDI to evaluate websites, teamed up with DoubleVerify in January to assist Twitter with a “brand safety” operation, according to a press release. Through this new initiative, Twitter will be informed by IAS and DoubleVerify if the companies determine that ad groups share allegedly inappropriate content.
“Unfortunately, this leveraging of AI technology for censorship is the gold standard now,” Benz said. “AI is the censorship workhorse, the secret sauce, and virtually no professional disinformation company in 2023 enters the industry without some AI tech aspect to their censorship scheme — whether that’s AI for identifying posts, for flagging posts, for sorting targeted online communities, or for mapping interrelations between different targeted online communities.”
IAS has released dozens of recommendations through the years to brands on how to combat “fake news” and extremist” websites. One includes urging companies to “use a combination of exclusion lists,” which it has claimed, separately, may not go far “enough” in fighting “fraud.”
“The implementation of ad revenue crushing sentinels like Newsguard, Global Disinformation Index, and the like has completely crippled the potential of alternative news sources to compete on an even economic playing field with approved media outlets like CNN and the New York Times,” Mike Benz, ex-deputy assistant for internal communications and information policy at the Department of State told the Examiner. ✪