This is the first part of a Washington Examiner investigative series about self-styled ‘disinformation’ tracking organizations that are cracking down on conservative media and part of a lucrative operation that aims to defund disfavored speech.
EXCLUSIVE — Well-funded “disinformation” tracking groups are part of a stealth operation blacklisting and trying to defund conservative media, likely costing the news companies large sums in advertising dollars, a Washington Examiner investigation found.
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.
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Brands, which have been seeking to promote products online through multiple websites to expand their digital footprint, are turning to corporate digital ad companies keyed into global markets. In turn, some of these companies are contracting “disinformation” trackers to obtain private information about which websites they should purportedly “defund.”
The Global Disinformation Index, a British group with two affiliated U.S. 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.”
GDI’s mission is to “remove the financial incentive” to create “disinformation,” and its “core output” is a secretive “dynamic exclusion list” that rates news outlets based on their alleged disinformation “risk” factor, according to its website. There are at least 2,000 websites on this exclusion list, which has “had a significant impact on the advertising revenue that has gone to those sites,” Melford said on a March 2022 podcast episode hosted by the Safety Tech Innovation Network, a British government-backed group.
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.
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.
One source close to ad-buying operations in right-leaning media told the Washington Examiner that the outlet is on GDI’s exclusion list, citing communications with ad companies. But the Washington Examiner was never contacted by GDI or informed of how it failed to meet GDI’s standards.
But GDI, which did not reply to several requests for its exclusion list, discloses in reports which outlets it identifies as the “riskiest” and “worst” offenders for peddling disinformation. These 10, which all skew to the right, are the American Spectator, Newsmax, the Federalist, the American Conservative, One America News, the Blaze, the Daily Wire, RealClearPolitics, Reason, and the New York Post.
“The American Conservative had one of the lowest scores in the study for bias, indicating that almost all of the content sampled was either somewhat or entirely biased,” said GDI, which did not clarify how its ratings may differ for websites publishing news or mostly opinion articles.
GDI’s “disinformation” tracking efforts, however, have even resulted in opinions being flagged. The organization alleged in an October 2022 memo that a Washington Examiner commentary article titled “The Left’s gender-bending obsession is tiresome and absurd” was “anti-LGBTQ+” disinformation.
That same memo singled out Amazon for hosting ads in the Washington Examiner.
Further, according to a senior executive at a company that buys ads in digital outlets, Breitbart News is on GDI’s exclusion list. Melford cited Breitbart in her 2022 podcast appearance, noting that a “whole ecosystem of organizations” targeting the outlet has led to it being deplatformed.
Topics that have recently spawned “disinformation” allegedly relate to COVID-19, anti-vaccine content, mask protests, abortion, and alleged voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election, Melford said. She added that “disinformation narratives” have also taken hold around the idea “that there’s a corrupt elite working only for themselves, not serving the will of the common man, and that only a strong man can get rid of the corrupt elite.”
The Washington Examiner also spoke with a member of GDI’s advisory panel who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal operations. The member claimed they haven’t played a role in crafting the exclusion list but said that “disinformation” labeling, in general, could “definitely” appear to be cloaked censorship.
“This is the concern,” said the member, adding it “sounds plausible” that any website on the index’s riskiest list would also “probably” be on the exclusion list. Other ad buyers close to conservative media who contract with multiple outlets, as well as tech analysts, agreed with this sentiment.
But GDI has been transparent about its goal in labeling certain websites as purveyors of disinformation. The organization submitted a report to the United Nations that said it is “seeking to defund disinformation” and break “the incentive to create it for the purpose of garnering advertising revenues.”
That same report called on “governments around the world” to examine their policies for addressing disinformation and enact “stringent repercussions” for culprits.
The “whole point” of the “disinformation” tracking industry is clearly to destroy “the reach, scalability, market, and even credibility” of conservative news outlets, added Benz, now executive director of Foundation for Freedom Online, a censorship watchdog.
On the flip side, all of the websites that GDI ranks as the “least risky” lean left in their news coverage — minus the Wall Street Journal. These include NPR, ProPublica, the Associated Press, Insider, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, and HuffPost, according to a 27-page report.
The outlets purportedly show “minimal bias” and a lack of “sensational language” and have “excelled in disclosing and following their operational policies and practices,” said the report. Still, many of these “least” risky outlets, such as Buzzfeed, promoted the Steele dossier, a discredited piece of opposition research that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign fed to the FBI to link Donald Trump to Russia.
Others, such as HuffPost, have published numerous stories boosting the falsehood that a New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s infamous abandoned laptop was “Russian disinformation.”
“The Left’s censorship efforts are anti-American, and conservatives should oppose them regardless of whether they originate in the private sector or in the White House,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) told the Washington Examiner.
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.
The Washington Examiner has also been labeled as “inflammatory,” according to emails and an ad-buying source close to the matter. Because of this, the outlet has run into ad problems with Comcast, Facebook, and Google, among others, emails show.
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, TechCrunch reported.
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“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 Global Disinformation Index did not reply to several Washington Examiner requests for comment, nor did DoubleVerify or IAS.
Editor’s note: Since publication of the article, NewsGuard, which is mentioned in a quote from Mike Benz, contacted the Washington Examiner to say, “Unlike the other companies the story mentioned, NewsGuard ratings are done based on fully transparent, apolitical criteria relating to basic journalistic practice. Unlike the other companies, we always contact sites before issuing ratings to get their feedback if they fail even one of our nine criteria. And since our ratings are not based on politics, there are conservative sites that get high scores and liberal sites that get low scores and vice versa.”