This article is an investigative collaboration with the newsletter BRANDED, which focuses on the online advertising industry. You can dive deeper into these issues at branded.checkmyads.org.
The Daily Wire, the right-wing media outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, is one of the most toxic sites on the internet. Its content, which spreads widely on Facebook, features disinformation on a variety of important topics, including climate change and COVID-19. And yet prominent brands that are promised ad placement in "trusted spaces for quality conversations that move our society forward" end up on The Daily Wire.
How is this happening? Let's start at the beginning.
Before the internet was created, companies knew where their advertising was placed. To place an ad, they contacted a newspaper, billboard owner, or TV station and struck a deal. Companies sent in a check and, in a few days, the ad appeared where they wanted. Magazines like Playboy could attract an audience by publishing explicit pictures, but they weren't going to be able to sell ads to Chuck E. Cheese. Someone could start a neo-Nazi newspaper, but it would have a hard time attracting any advertisers at all. This manual process of placing ads was cumbersome and expensive, but it was also transparent.
The internet changed the fundamental nature of advertising. Google and other technology firms started collecting volumes of information about individual internet users and tracked them as they surfed the internet. Advertisers no longer have to strike deals with individual publications. Instead, they can purchase targeted advertising based on demographics (age, location, income) and behavior (browsing history) regardless of where the ad appears. Publications, meanwhile, can instantly monetize their site by installing a line of code, like Google AdSense, on their website.
This means that it is no longer important how an online publication attracts traffic. A publication can monetize an audience regardless of the tactics it uses. Disinformation, hate, conspiracy theories, and other toxic content weren't invented by the internet. But it made this kind of content much easier to monetize.
The rise of social media sites like Facebook is also a factor. Social media algorithms favor content that invokes a strong emotional response. This is much easier to do when you aren't tethered to facts or reality.
Over time, however, this new paradigm began to backfire on prominent brands. Kellogg's, for example, was targeting people they thought might be interested in cereal — middle class men age 25 to 35, perhaps — and ended up with ads on Breitbart, a toxic website founded by Steve Bannon that launders white nationalist tropes. The activist group Sleeping Giants exposed thousands of these companies, subjecting them to negative publicity before most eventually pulled their ads from Breitbart.
This is where OpenWeb, an advertising and commenting platform, comes in. The venture-backed company, which has raised $72 million since its founding in 2012, acknowledges that there is a "crisis of toxicity online." But OpenWeb claims it "brings brands a safe advertising experience" by only partnering with publications that "align with standards of journalism" and don't spread "hate speech" or "disinformation."
Scott Galloway is a prominent investor, author, and professor who joined the OpenWeb board in April 2021. "OpenWeb is to social media, what alternative energies are to fossil fuels," Galloway said in the press release announcing his new role.
Advertisers who buy into Galloway's premise, however, may soon find their ads displayed on The Daily Wire alongside conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines and anti-trans diatribes.
The toxicity of The Daily Wire
Popular Information has documented The Daily Wire's hateful content about LGBTQ people and false claims about climate change. In recent months, however, The Daily Wire has been replete with false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.
Ben Shapiro, The Daily Wire's founder, says he is vaccinated and has occasionally encouraged others to "get vaxxed." But earlier this year, the site hired Candace Owens, a prominent conservative pundit. Owens has used The Daily Wire's platform to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccines.
In a recent podcast hosted on The Daily Wire's website, Owens claimed there was no scientific basis supporting the COVID vaccination drive. "What is driving this push to get everybody vaccinated? Because we know it’s not science, that doesn’t make sense," Owens said. In the same episode, Owens asserted that there are "drugs that are clearly working" to treat COVID-19 but the government is "banning these drugs" in order to continue pushing the vaccine. In another recent episode, Owens praised Nicki Minaj for questioning "the vaccine narrative." Minaj falsely claimed that the COVID vaccine could cause swollen testicles and impotence.
In a column published on The Daily Wire, Owens claimed that "[i]f vaccines were cars, every single one of them would be recalled."
Another top contributor, Michael Knowles, wrote an article suggesting that COVID vaccines were neither safe nor effective. "The vaccines are so effective that they require boosters and so safe that the FDA refuses to approve the booster for most people," Knowles wrote. Knowles described claims that COVID-19 vaccines were "safe and effective" as "propaganda of our ruling class."
In recent days, The Daily Wire has urged people to defy the vaccine mandates put in place by the Biden administration. Under the mandate, workers at private businesses with 100 or more employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. In advertisements on Facebook, The Daily Wire's co-founder Jeremy Boreing, called the vaccine mandate "tyrannical" and "dictatorial." Boreing encouraged Americans to "fight back" against "authoritarian bureaucrats who seek to control our lives."
Nevertheless, OpenWeb appears to believe that The Daily Wire is able to facilitate "trusted spaces for quality conversations" and provide a platform for "brand-safe advertising."
NewsGuard, an independent organization that evaluates publications on transparency and credibility, reviewed The Daily Wire's articles and concluded that it publishes "unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims about COVID-19." According to NewsGuard, The Daily Wire also "does not gather and report facts responsibly."
OpenWeb's publisher policy states that it will not partner with sites that "not align with standards of journalism" or "knowingly spreads disinformation." OpenWeb says it "believes strongly in these standards" but "does not have resources dedicated to analyzing all content released by publisher partners." The company says that it has "begun consulting organizations like the Global Disinformation Index to continue to strengthen and enforce the policy."
In July, BRANDED exposed how OpenWeb was doing business with a number of highly toxic disinformation sites including The Post Millennial, Revolver News, Lifezette, and Wayne Dupree. A few days later, OpenWeb announced it terminated "13 publishers from the OpenWeb network who we determined did not align with our Publisher Standards policy." In August, OpenWeb said that, after further investigation, it would terminate a total of 50 publishers. The Daily Wire, which ranks as the top publisher on Facebook, remains.
OpenWeb co-founder Roee Goldberg told Popular Information that OpenWeb "partners with a wide range of publishers" and said it is "difficult to draw the line between upholding standards of journalism and eliminating publishers whose viewpoints may differ from our own." Goldberg added that OpenWeb is "continuously making updates to our policies and our processes to enforce them" and, in the future, may implement "a more robust benchmark for who we can/should include/exclude from the network."
As for The Daily Wire specifically, Goldberg said its relationship with the site "comprises less than .1% of our revenues" and the decision to continue working with The Daily Wire is not "economically driven."
OpenWeb’s rationale and excuses for including disinformation sites like DailyWire are the same lame ones Facebook uses. Prof Galloway excoriates the latter on a regular basis.
Thanks for your work, Judd - I’m always amazed at the information you provide us.