How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News

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by Pagan Kennedy

One day in late November, an earth and environmental science professor named Nathan Phillips visited Breitbart News for the first time. Mr. Phillips had heard about the hateful headlines on the site — like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” — and wondered what kind of companies would support such messages with their ad dollars. When he clicked on the site, he was shocked to discover ads for universities, including one for the graduate school where he’d received his own degree — Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “That was a punch in the stomach,” he said.

Why would an environmental science program want to be promoted on a site that denies the existence of climate change? Mr. Phillips figured — correctly — that Duke officials did not know where their ads were appearing, so he sent a tweet to Duke about its association with the “sexist racist” site. Eventually, after a flurry of communication with the environment department, he received a satisfying resolution — an assurance that its ads would no longer show up on Breitbart.

Mr. Phillips had just engaged in a new form of consumer activism, one that is rewriting the rules of online advertising. In the past month and a half, thousands of activists have started to push companies to take a stand on what you might call “hate news” — a toxic mix of lies, white-supremacist content and bullying that can inspire attacks on Muslims, gay people, women, African-Americans and others.

In mid-November, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants became the hub of the new movement. The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys.

“We’re focused on Breitbart News right now because they’re the biggest fish,” a founder of Sleeping Giants told me. (He requested anonymity because some members of the group work in the digital-media industry.) Eventually, Sleeping Giants would like to broaden its campaign to take on a menagerie of bad actors, but that would require a much bigger army of Giants, and “it has only been a month since we started doing this,” he told me when I talked to him in December. Then he added, “This has been the longest month of my life.”

He said that he noticed something had gone wrong with internet ads in November when, just out of curiosity, he visited Breitbart News. Like Mr. Phillips, he was gobsmacked by what he found there. His version of Breitbart was plastered with the logos of Silicon Valley brands that courted tech-savvy, pro-diversity millennials. “I couldn’t believe that these progressive companies were paying Breitbart News,” he said.

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