At the end of 2022, The_Donald quietly started running ads.
The_Donald, a MAGA forum banned by Reddit for its role in organizing the January 6 riots, had not only found new life on its self-hosted website patriots(.)win, it was being financially propped up with ad revenue.
The question is: Who would do that? Who would be audacious enough to bring one of the most universally toxic websites in America into the advertising supply chain?
The answer: Publir, an inconspicuous ad network with an inactive business status since last year. That’s right, The_Donald is getting paid by a company not in good standing. What a surprise.
Now, a company can go inactive for a variety of reasons, such as not filing paperwork or not paying annual fees. But any one of them should be a blazing red flag for the compliance department of any major ad exchange.
This hasn’t stopped Publir from receiving a steady supply of ads from major exchanges, including Google. It hasn’t stopped Publir from operating a series of mislabeled advertising accounts. And it certainly hasn’t stopped it from funneling ad revenues to The_Donald.
So who’s behind this thing? All signs point to Anand Ramanujan, co-founder of Publir and the once longtime chief technical officer of RealClearPolitics, owned by Real Clear Holdings, LLC.
In this week's BRANDED, we’re exploring the ties between Anand, his “non-partisan” media company RealClearPolitics, and the ad network he runs that’s keeping pro-insurrection forum The_Donald alive.
It takes one simple search on Well-Known, an open-source ad tool, to confirm that The_Donald has been monetized through an ad network called Publir since December 9, 2022.
Publir runs ads for its clients, collects and distributes the revenues to publishers and takes a commission for itself in the process.
According to the site’s analysis shown below, Publir alone connects patriots(.)win to the wider advertising supply chain. This allows The_Donald to plug into ad exchanges like Google, Pubmatic, TripleLift, Media.net, Freewheel and Sonobi. These exchanges, in turn, connect them to advertisers and potentially millions of dollars in revenue.
But beyond that, nothing about Publir is straightforward.
Publir and RealClear’s fuzzy history
Publir and RealClear have much in common. They have a track record of not being clear about who is running what, when. And they both have been involved with hidden right-wing disinformation operations.
Publir has two co-founders: one is Joseph Malchow. The other is Anand.
Now a venture capitalist, Joseph first made his name with a popular blog at Dartmouth that criticized the university for alleged schemes to rewrite its constitution with a liberal bias. According to his LinkedIn bio, he then co-founded Publir.
The next year, he also joined the Silicon Valley board of The Federalist Society, a legal organization that advocates for strict textual interpretations of the Constitution. Joseph’s bio says that Publir’s “platform is trusted by publications from The Atlantic to RealClearPolitics” and that its “media properties move minds and markets every day, and represent one of the world’s top-ranked consortia by traffic.”
Anand is the lesser-known founder. Alongside Publir, he’s also worked at RealClearPolitics, which describes itself and its associated titles as an “independent, non-partisan media company.”
In a 2020 piece, The New York Times described how part of RealClear’s operations received dark money funding totaling over $3 milllion in 2018.
RealClear was also using its staff and office space to run secret disinformation and traffic-generating operations, The Daily Beast revealed in 2019, after linking disinformation website Conservative Country to RealClear through a shared Google Analytics code and Anand’s WordPress account. When the Beast asked RealClear about the site, it was Anand, RealClear’s CTO, who replied.
In another sign of the commingled operations between RealClear and Publir, when the Daily Beast contacted American Thinker, one of the sites the disinformation operation was heavily linking to, founder Thomas Lifson said, “We have a contract with Real Clear Holdings to handle some of our non-editorial functions.”
But RealClear doesn’t have an ad network, or at least not that we know of.
American Thinker, a political commentary site which regularly published election lies and has often been cited by Russian state media, does currently work with Publir for advertising, as shown by the ad widget in its source code and its ads.txt listing.
And according to references on third-party app index sites, American Thinker’s iOS app was developed by Anand.
If Thomas says American Thinker has a relationship with Real Clear Holdings, how come the records instead show a link with Publir and Anand?
Online records show a tangled crossover between RealClear, Publir, and Anand.
On his LinkedIn, Anand says he was vice president of operations at RealClearPolitics from 2005 to 2007 and chief technology officer from 2007 to 2020.
But then in 2021 he says he “founded” Publir.
Ostensibly, a clean break and separation of roles. But his digital paper trail suggests otherwise.
Anand formed Publir, the DBA ("doing business as," a trade name used instead of a registered company name) of Integer Media, LLC, in 2011, when he was CTO at RealClearPolitics, not 2021, state records show. In a 2015 press release, for when RealClear bought back its shares from Forbes, Anand is described as a “current co-owner” of RealClear.
We also found records showing Integer Media was relocated to Delaware in 2022 as a shell corporation named Earnstack, Inc.
Reached for comment, RealClear CEO Tom Bevan told Check My Ads, "Publir is one of dozens of ad networks that RealClear's tech team works with. Anand left as CTO in 2017."
Anand and Joseph didn’t respond to requests for comment.
So, here’s what we know: A one-time co-owner of RealClearPolitics has controlled Integer Media, LLC, DBA Publir, since its inception. For many years, he was an owner and operator of both. And it's not clear where his relationship with each company begins and ends.
It’s not hard to see how Publir, which has shared staff and infrastructure with RealClear, may also be involved with political disinformation. Especially when its online advertising files clearly show that it is.
And now it’s funneling money to The_Donald, where at least 20 forum accounts were linked to likely Russian state-backed disinformation actors, according to two separate reports by network analysis firm Graphika and cybersecurity research group Recorded Future.
Publir has just one job: being an ad network.
Ad networks are expected to list an up-to-date business entity for each website they add to their inventory. This provides a small crumb of transparency to advertisers who would otherwise have no way to trace their media spend.
But in December 2022 — 12 months after the company turned into Earnstack, Inc. — Publir added The_Donald to its inventory, as first noted by Alex Kaplan, a Media Matters senior researcher.
In fact, Publir onboarded an entire ring of Reddit-style conspiracy theory forums using the same ”.win” suffix, including:
Publir is expected to list a corporate entity for each of these websites. It listed them under “Greg.” Two weeks later, Publir changed that to “Scored(.)co,” a site that appears to own the whole .win ring.
Why not just list the registered corporate name here? In their privacy policies, both Scored.co and The_Donald list “Patriots, LLC,” a Delaware shell corporation incorporated in 2001.
Why would a shell company funneling money to another shell company backing an attempted coup want to keep their names under wraps? It looks like Publir has a different job than your regular ad network: to act as a front.
If you found out you were buying from a store that was using a fake name, you would probably not go there again. But dozens of ad exchanges haven’t given advertisers the chance to do that. They’ve been allowing Publir to represent itself under false names and labels.
It all comes down to seller accounts.
In the ad marketplace, seller accounts are like combination passports and bank accounts. A seller account identifies the holder, allows them access to the ad market, and receives the advertising revenue earned.
In theory, ad exchanges issue the following types of seller accounts to publishers and ad networks:
1) PUBLISHER: meaning the business both owns and operate the websites they’re running ads on,
2) INTERMEDIARY: a middleman who doesn’t own the site but operates the advertising for it and others and take a percentage of the total revenue as a fee, or
3) BOTH: the business both owns some of the sites and for some acts as a middleman.
Ad exchanges then list the account ID in their inventory, along with the company name and domain. This is part of the ads.txt protocol, an industry initiative designed to help advertisers trace the websites they run ads on back to a corporate entity.
Under the ads.txt protocol, Publir should be listed as “Earnstack, Inc.” an “Intermediary.”
But in practice, exchanges aren’t doing very much vetting at all. This has created an opening for Publir to operate as a “dark pool sales house” or simply, a “dark pool.”
We’ve talked about dark pools before. It’s when a company uses “Publisher” seller accounts meant for use by a single publisher (or media organization with multiple titles, à la Condé Nast) across unrelated websites.
They usually slap their name on the seller account to lead advertisers to believe their ads are running on, say, Publir.com.
How Publir is listed incorrectly across the advertising marketplace
Dark pools are a scheme designed to yield more ad revenues for everyone involved. The brand safe and higher traffic websites help “juice” the pool's CPM, while new lower traffic and reputation provide more audience data and ad space, giving higher total ad revenues to the whole pool.
When you understand the basics, it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going on here; RealClear is a family of established, brand safe websites. The_Donald is not.
When RealClear titles and The_Donald share seller accounts, The_Donald’s CPM rates go up. They are, in a very real sense, revenue sharing.
Publir essentially acts as an undeclared financial clearinghouse, allowing websites like The_Donald to command a steady and guaranteed stream of ad revenue from the moment they enter the pool.
Publir then makes payouts based on their private revenue-share agreements.
It’s worth noting that not every seller account Publir operates is a dark pool and RealClearPolitics does not share all its accounts with The_Donald.
But Publir’s seller account with Google provides us with the clearest picture we can get — and what it shows us suggests that self-dealing is par for the course.
The account is shared across 281 websites, including RealClear titles, The_Donald ring and websites that Anand personally owns. These include: CraveHub(.)com, VideoTruffle(.)com, numbericle(.)com, VideoTruffle3(.)com, and VideoTruffle54(.)com.
For those keeping score at home, this is absolutely incredible stuff: Anand is monetizing his own websites (both personally and through RealClearPolitics) on an ad network he owns, and expanding both businesses through monetizing undisclosed disinformation rings.
RealClearPolitics knows about all this
Nandini first reported on Publir’s relationship to The_Donald in February 2023. That weekend, the company removed 227 seller accounts from its inventory. They then brought them back under new account numbers. This may have been to generate new seller account numbers, allowing it to avoid any blocks placed by the exchanges.
Weeks later, Claire took the stage at CapCon, a major media conference, right after RealClearPolitics CEO Tom Bevan. She delivered evidence of the shared accounts between RealClearPolitics and The_Donald right in front of him.
“Today, Anand Ramanujan pools revenues for RealClear sites and The_Donald under the same sketchy mislabeled accounts,” Claire told the audience. “That means RealClear media network shares its user data and revenues with The_Donald and dozens of other disinformation outlets.”
Then she asked: “Does RealClearPolitics know about that? Do they think it's OK? Will they continue to work with Publir?”
Tom didn’t respond and left the conference shortly after. Since then he hasn’t made any moves to distance his “non-partisan” company from Publir.
This may indeed be because the companies are two peas in a pod.
What now? Publir must be removed from the supply chain
Is RealClearPolitics secretly funding disinformation outlets through its now-former CTO? Are these two companies actually independent — or collaborating under a sketchy corporate structure?
We can’t say for sure. But here’s what we do know: Thanks to its active relationships with major ad exchanges, Publir has access to a lot of money. The company claims it has earned “approximately $100 million in revenues for customers since its inception.
How much have they funneled to websites like the_Donald? And more importantly, why is RealClearPolitics still in business with them?
So here’s what we want to see next:
We will be monitoring this network closely.
Nandini and Claire