Check My Ads' Claire Atkin appeared on MSNBC's 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle and broke down how disinformation sites use adtech to threaten democracy and make a buck.
Stephanie Ruhle: Misinformation is a big, big business and like a lot of digital companies it is fueled by advertising dollars. But many companies might not even know that they're funding misinformation with their ad money.
But one nonprofit is drawing attention to that very thing: Alerting companies when their ads appear on websites spreading disinformation or hate speech. Our next guest runs that digital advertising watch dog group, Claire Atkin. She is CEO of Check My Ads.
I'm so glad you're here, because all the time I am saying, "What in the world kind of company, right, consumer -facing company would want to advertise on a platform that's all about hate speech.
But it seems that a lot of companies don't even realize that's where their ad dollars are going. How does that work, right? CMOs know exactly what their budgets are and they should know exactly where that money's going.
Claire Atkin: That's right. I mean what we're up against is some really interesting new forces in the marketing world. Now as far as I see it in the last hundred years in America, we've had three big dates that have changed the course of American history.
December 7th, Pearl Harbor, September 11th, and now January 6th. And we're up against forces that want January 6th every day. What I mean by that is chaos without accountability.
Now, there are lots of political reasons to spread hate or disinformation. But what we're seeing at Check My Ads is that around these political forces,
we are seeing a donut of grifters who are making money off of ads by collecting them on the internet.
Stephanie Ruhle: But if I'm an advertiser from a consumer brand, don't I know where my advertisements are?
Claire Atkin: If you're Disney, if you're Procter & Gamble, if you're Ford, the answer is no.
Stephanie Ruhle: Why?
Claire Atkin: Well, do you remember Malcolm in the middle?
Stephanie Ruhle: Sure.
Claire Atkin: Yeah, well we have like a Michael in the middle, okay? So advertisers don't place ads themselves on the internet. Michael does it for them. It's like my stand-in for ad tech companies.
Stephanie Ruhle: Got it.
Claire Atkin: Okay, so ad tech companies are the ones that are placing ads on the internet around the world, and they have big promises to advertisers. They say things like, "We'll get you high click -through rates. We'll get you lots of impressions. That's eyeballs." But they also promise this critical third thing, which is called brand safety. The idea that advertisers have been very clear that they don't want their ads sponsoring election disinformation, COVID-19 disinformation, climate change disinformation. They're making that big promise. And what we at Check My Ads are finding is that they are not fulfilling that promise.
Stephanie Ruhle: But do you believe that all companies really care? Because at the end of the day, they can say they don't want to stand with hate speech. They don't want to stand against this. But they want every customer they can get.
They want to sell shirts and shoes and soda pop to everyone. out there irrelevant of who they vote for and who they love. So do you believe that companies actually want to know this information and care about where they advertise or they're conveniently looking the other way saying, "I don't know, it's Michael in the middle. It's how the business operates."
Claire Atkin: I think you'll hear lots of things. Nandini Jammi, my business partner, and I are both marketers, and we've worked in marketing our whole careers.
Now marketers have worked for decades, in many cases, very, very hard to build these brands over time. They're very sensitive to their brand value, what they call their brand equity. So they don't want to be sponsoring places that give consumers the ick, let alone places that cause insurrections.
Stephanie Ruhle: Check My Ads says that that you are about facts over fiction, right? And it is true we saw Alex Jones get hit with a huge fine for what he pushed. We know what Fox News and their defamation suit, all the money they had to pay for pushing misinformation. But what do you say to those who say, what makes you the judge and jury? How do we know that you're not partisan and you're not putting your opinions on what is right and wrong?
Claire Atkin: That's really the question that we're asking ad tech firms. I mean, these companies are making and breaking the entire media ecosystem. So sure, we're saying we need more transparency and accountability on this supply chain that nobody has ever heard of. But we're not the ones making decisions. It should be the advertisers, and what we're saying is that advertisers are not the ones in control of their own campaigns.
Stephanie Ruhle: Do they want to be?
Yes, they do. And the fact is, is that these adtech middleman, these Michaels, have built up a system where they are the ones who have seized control away from advertisers, away from consumers, and certainly away from the news.
Stephanie Ruhle:So what unwinds this?
Yeah, that's a big question.
Stephanie Ruhle: Right? Because when we talk about politics, it's like how did we get here, right? The system got out of control and we're left with this. It's like every system is broken and now we're left with this warp situation. What fixes it?
Claire Atkin: We're dealing with middlemen. So...
Stephanie Ruhle: Well, those middlemen aren't going to off themselves. They want to keep their jobs.
Claire Atkin: Yeah, they sure do. I have an uncle, okay? He sells cars in Florida. And I asked him. I said, Uncle Ron, you sell cars, you're a middleman. He says, yeah, I said, what's stopping you selling a car to someone that's a lemon car, a car that doesn't work?
He goes, oh, we have lemon laws. If you buy a car and you realize that it doesn't work, you take it into the shop so many times, there's a law that says that you'll get your money back. It's a lemon. It's also a federal crime to tamper with mileage. He says that every two years he goes down to the DMV for a 40-hour test on financial law so that he knows that he's following the law. Now that's just the car industry and we built that up over decades because it was a source of fraud.
Stephanie Ruhle: It's also an industry that forces us to have a middleman because the car dealer lobby is so strong that unless you're Elon Musk you can't sell directly to consumers but that's for another day. Your point?
Claire Atkin: We're not dealing with a national car industry here. We're dealing with a $600 billion international industry that has absolutely no regulation. Anyone can do whatever they want internationally. It's like the high seas, okay? This industry is the second largest industry in the world for organized crime.
Stephanie Ruhle: Follow the money at the end of the day. Claire, thank you for what you do. Thank you for joining us. Great to meet you.