Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation. Here’s what’s new with us:
On Monday, July 18th — 1.5 years after the J6 insurrection — media ratings company NewsGuard quietly downgraded Fox News from “Green - Trustworthy” to “Red - Proceed with Caution.”
If you ask NewsGuard, they’ll tell you it’s because they are a neutral entity that rates media outlets using an airtight process. Their team of dispassionate journalists carefully evaluated Fox News against a set of apolitical criteria and Fox News passed the test — until just last month.
But allow us to give you the more plausible explanation: We discovered that NewsGuard had been leaving out Fox News’ role in promoting Stop The Steal and other election disinformation from their rating for the outlet for the last year and a half. That’s a big omission for a company that has just one job: to help steer ad dollars away from sites spreading false narratives. Last month, it looks like they scrambled to avoid having to explain themselves.
This isn’t a one-off error for NewsGuard. It’s common practice for the company, whose key to staying objective appears to be leaving out large swaths of critical context on the outlets they rate. In fact, when you look more closely at NewsGuard, you’ll find that its ratings process is designed to disregard the pernicious disinformation tactics used by bad actors.
The result is NewsGuard doesn’t actually flag up disinformation outlets. Rather, they give them the NewsGuard stamp of approval. That’s a problem for all of us as NewsGuard makes a push to become the ad industry’s de facto partner in combating disinformation.
In today’s BRANDED, we’re exploring how NewsGuard’s ratings system is driving ad dollars right into the heart of the disinformation economy.
Since 2018, NewsGuard has filled a desperate need in the ad industry: a nice and neutral media ratings system that tells ad exchanges, agencies, and advertisers which websites they shouldn’t be working with.
NewsGuard ticks off all the boxes for ad executives: it does the labor-intensive research on over 8000 media outlets for them. It takes the heat off them when they ban a bad website. And more importantly, their ratings system easily plugs into their own programmatic media buying systems, which allows them to run multi-million dollar ad spends against NewsGuard ratings.
NewsGuard bends over backwards to maintain the optics of neutrality.
Their website declares they “have no political axes to grind.” The company discourages staff from posting about their political views on social media. In fact, days after they downgraded Fox News, they suddenly downgraded MSNBC, and issued a press release announcing they had dinged both of them. It’s a very on-brand move for a company that seems eager to stave off accusations of political bias.
This Swiss-style positioning has helped NewsGuard curry favor in the adtech industry, which is under pressure to enforce their publisher policies but is terrified to look like they’re taking sides.
Today, NewsGuard has inked partnerships with major ad exchanges like Pubmatic, OpenWeb, Kargo, and TripleLift. They also have licensing agreements with Microsoft Edge and American Federation of Teachers, which makes their ratings available to millions of users.
In other words, a lot of people and institutions count on NewsGuard to tell them what parts of the internet they can trust.
There’s just one problem.
NewsGuard’s verdicts come down in the form of an easily digestible nutrition label, made up of the following:
This rating process — developed by its co-founders Gordon Crovitz and Steven Brill — is the company’s crown jewel. They lead a team of trained journalists who research each outlet’s adherence to journalistic standards according to a set of nine “apolitical criteria.”
There are multiple rounds of edits. They have all-staff meetings. And the co-founders (who are former journalists themselves) double as quality control, personally signing off on every nutrition label.
NewsGuard has been criticized before for handing out green ratings to outlets that don’t deserve them. And NewsGuardhas always replied that color isn’t everything and to read the report accompanying each nutrition label.
Here’s what they told Media Leader last month:
NewsGuard CEOs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz said most of the company’s clients use more granular data from its reports, rather than the binary consumer-facing red-green categories that have placed Fox alongside more reputable news organizations. In an email responding to criticism from Check My Ads, Brill stressed to The Media Leader that anyone commenting on their ratings should read the “nutrition labels” (i.e., the substantive report) and not just look at the rating color.
First of all, that’s not true. Color and trust score is everything. NewsGuard’s own research shows that internet users using NewsGuard ratings are 56% more likely to share news from green-rated websites. A NewsGuard case study with global ad agency Interpublic Media Group (IPG) showed a 143% increase in clickthrough rates for green-rated websites. A green NewsGuard rating literally brings in more traffic, which translates into higher ad revenues.
Additionally, ad exchanges and agencies use NewsGuard’s trust scores to create rules around where their clients’ ads will run. For example, IPG builds their inclusion lists around a minimum trust score of 85.
But anyway, we did what NewsGuard asked and read the full nutrition labels. We didn’t find what we were looking for. Instead, we found that NewsGuard is missing a few key things that a company in the business of “combating disinformation” might not want to be missing.
Here we go.
For the past few years, Daily Wire has treated transgender people like a punching bag.
They have developed an entire beat around Laurel Hubbard, the transgender weightlifter who competed in the Olympics, in order to harass her over her gender identity. They use scare quotes to mock her, they superfluously bring up her gender identity to weaponize against her, and have used her image to promote content about “the dangers of transgender ideology.”
This Hubbard beat is not a news story and does not serve the public interest. Rather, it is part of a larger content strategy at Daily Wire designed to promote transphobia.
And there is no line they won’t cross. This year, Daily Wire launched a fake documentary called “What Is A Woman?” directed by Daily Wire employee and professional troll Matt Walsh.
Walsh has previously published a transphobic children's book called Johnny The Walrus and claimed he’s fighting against “assault on gender ideology.” This isn’t exactly a journalistic inquiry into the truth.
During production, Walsh’s producers reached out to transgender activists and academics for interviews without disclosing their connection to Walsh or Daily Wire. In fact, they went out of their way to obscure their identities.
In February 2022, LA Blade reported on Walsh’s deceptive tactics:
“Erlick described how… a woman calling herself “Makenna Lynn” reached out to her in January. Makenna claimed to be a film student creating a documentary for the “Gender Unity Project,” which had a website and a Twitter page. Erlick grew suspicious and discovered Makenna was actually Makenna Waters, Matt Walsh’s show producer. She also found that the Gender Unity Project was registered to Justin Folk of Project Veritas…”
The film is undeniably a Daily Wire production. It’s available exclusively on DailyWire.com. Daily Wire has spent well over $200,000 to promote the film on Facebook and TikTok.
You won’t find a single mention of transphobia on Daily Wire’s nutrition label.
Daily Wire's Trust Score: 69.5/100 — Generally maintains basic standards of credibility and transparency
In 2019, NewsGuard co-founder Gordon Crovitz explained that Russian state media outlets would never receive a green rating because their mission is propaganda, not journalism.
Here's what wrote in The Daily Caller.
“Some websites will probably never earn a green rating. RT and Sputnik, for example, are Russian-government websites dedicated to supporting Kremlin policies and actively seeking to undermine values of free people, free markets and the rule of law. NewsGuard warns that their mission is Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, not journalism."
Then he explained that The Daily Signal — the media outlet owned and operated by Heritage Foundation — has received a perfect 100/100.
“When the conservative Heritage Foundation decided to create a news website, the Daily Signal, its founders went out of their way to embrace the highest standards of journalism. As a result, the Daily Signal earns a rare perfect score on all nine NewsGuard criteria.”
Is this a joke?
Last year, Heritage Foundation was one of the main drivers of the false narrative around Critical Race Theory. The organization — along with 21 other groups funded by an obscure foundation — manufactured a narrative that a “radicalnew theory being taught in schools that seeks to make white people hate themselves and define everyone exclusively by their race.”
They parlayed the hysteria into a nationwide push to ban books related to racism, the history of slavery, and white supremacy. They built a Critical Race Theory Legislation Tracker to track their progress around “protecting teachers and students” from Critical Race Theory, which, we will remind you, was never being taught anywhere to begin with.
They’ve been doing all this in plain sight. Here’s Chris Rufo, a then-visiting fellow at Heritage Foundation, laying out the plan:
"We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
This is uhh…. the literal definition of propaganda. The Heritage Foundation founded The Daily Signal to hype the stories it makes up. The Daily Signal has a whole section on its website dedicated to promoting Critical Race Theory — and the coverage is neither fair nor accurate.
Regardless, NewsGuard gives The Daily Signal the same perfect score as The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The Daily Signal's Trust Score: 100/100 — Adheres to all nine of Newsguard's standards of credibility and transparency
The Daily Caller operates differently from your average media outlet. They’re made up of two parts:
1. DailyCaller.com, a for-profit website.
2. The Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF), a non-profit 501(c)3 that produces content for Daily Caller and also for "any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience.”
It’s all very sketchy. Daily Caller’s writing staff are all technically employed by Daily Caller News Foundation, and they essentially “donate” their stories to Daily Caller and all their other partner organizations. Nobody knows who funds DCNF.
Newsguard seems to have a very tiny problem with this.
They dock them 7.5 points for not identifying their owner, or any of the foundation’s donors. Daily Caller’s Editor in Chief Geoffrey Ingersoll tells Newsguard, “Foundation leadership opts not to disclose out of concern for their privacy.”
Hmm, that should be a bigger deal. Especially because DCNF operates less like a normal news organization and more like a central distributor of media stories.
DCNF picks up stories already reported in other outlets and recycles it on their own site.
In fact, the Center for Media and Democracy found in a two-week analysis that “only 39 percent of the articles represented original reporting; the rest hardly qualified as ‘investigative reporting’ or ‘deep policy reporting.’” The Washington Post refers to it as a “wireservice” that does little to no original reporting.
Here’s what DCNF does do: It acts as a kingpin in the disinformation economy. They don’t give away their stories to credible news organizations. They give it away to disinformation outlets that Newsguard rates as “red.”
The results are bizarre: NewsGuard gives DCNF a “green” on DailyCaller.com and “red” everywhere else.
A quick search shows that these websites — all labeled red — collectively host thousands of Daily Caller News Foundation stories:
This practice essentially keeps these sites afloat. The free stories they get from DCNF help pad their inventory, which they can then monetize through ads.
It also helps DCNF sustain a ring of disinformation outlets to distribute their content. In other words, when DCNF gives away articles for free, they’re giving away money for free — all for their shadowy owner and funders.
And Newsguard? Newsguard sits at the top of the funnel, greenlighting ad revenue for Daily Caller.
Daily Caller's Trust Score: 92.5/100 — Mostly adheres to basic standards of credibility and transparency
Green is more than just a color. It’s money.
We looked at more sites. NewsGuard tells us that outlets belonging to at least two J6 insurrectionists Tim Pool (TimCast.com) and Glenn Beck (The Blaze) are “reliable.”
They’ve found that The Post Millennial, a website that employs Proud Boys propagandist Andy Ngo“mostly adheres to basic standards of credibility.” They’ve even Human Events, a website that employs white nationalists like Charlie Kirk and Jack Posobiec, a clean bill of health.
Each of these outlets has been dropped by ad exchanges over the past 12 months — and it’s not thanks to Newsguard.
NewsGuard is taking the ad industry down an increasingly dangerous path. Its rating system is not just incompatible with the ad industry’s brand safety, it’s incompatible with public safety.
Advertisers looking to keep their ads away from hate and bigotry aren’t going to find a solution with NewsGuard.
Thanks for reading!
Nandini and Claire