Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation.
Here’s what’s new with us:
On January 6th, 2022 — exactly one year after the Capitol Hill insurrection — the lights went out on CharlieKirk(.)com. And by lights, we mean ads. Seemingly overnight, household brands like Lululemon and BET vanished. All that was left was a manually-placed ad for Pax Financial Investment, hawking “biblically responsible investing,” which helpfully leads to a 404 page on Calendly.com.
Kirk’s website should have always been a barren wasteland. As founder of Talking Points USA, an organization whose mission is described as “fighting a cultural war on college campuses,” his only KPI is to manufacture a steady stream of extremely brazen political stunts to create Content™️ for your newsfeed.
Kirk hosts a “Professor Watchlist,” a forum for aggrieved students to call out professors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda.” On his tour promoting the dangers of Critical Race Theory — an obscure grad-school-level course that is absolutely not taught to elementary school students — he called George Floyd a “scumbag.” And at the end of last year, he was calling for a border militia to protect “white demographics in America.”
But if none of that crosses a line for you, here’s what should: after months of promoting The Big Lie across his platforms, he organized free buses to transport his followers to Capitol Hill on January 6th. One of his passengers, a retired firefighter, assaulted a Capitol police officer that day.
In other words, Kirk isn’t just a talker. He’s a doer — and he played an active role in an attempted coup against the U.S. government. But until a few weeks ago, his website was fully monetized by a company called Playwire. Playwire is an ad network for gaming and entertainment websites. How did they let Charlie Kirk in there?
In today’s BRANDED, we’re exploring Playwire’s ongoing ties to Charlie Kirk and the J6 insurrection through one shady LLC.
What do you do if you’re a video game company who wants to reach people who are interested in gaming? You would partner with a company like Playwire. Playwire is a middleman company that exists to connect advertisers to niche audiences on the internet.
There are a lot of middlemen like this in the advertising industry, peddling “vetted” marketplaces where you can cost-effectively reach your niche audiences. Playwire operates in the entertainment and kid-friendly gaming niche, connecting thousands of advertisers to websites like Sparknotes, Party City and Planet Minecraft. “Our exclusive sites are vetted and continually optimized to ensure world-class content quality,” reads their marketing copy.
But in reality, Playwire has no interest in being exclusive. They make money by taking a cut of the revenues they earn from their marketplace of websites. And to grow their numbers to what you see below, they need more websites in their inventory, not less.
So platforms like Playwire scoop up thousands of unrelated, low-quality websites — often through even more middlemen — to pad out the relatively few high-quality websites in their inventory. Playwire approves these middlemen, allows them to bring their pool of dozens or even hundreds of websites into their inventory, and ultimately makes a single payout to one bank account. From there, each middleman splits the revenues with their websites.
So the middleman works with other middlemen? That’s right. Working through multiple layers of companies allows the websites to run profitable businesses without ever showing up as a line-item for advertisers. Now who would want to do that?
“Hello, and thank you for your message. We actually have not been monetizing Charlie Kirk's website for some time. It appears there may be a misconception that we are currently monetizing the website, potentially based on the fact that we may still be listed in the ads.txt file or referenced in legacy code on the website. We are, however, no longer working with the website.”
Probably someone who doesn’t want anyone to know they have ties to Charlie Kirk.
Playwire is and isn’t telling the truth. (Note: Playwire’s CEO did not respond to a request for comment.)
In Playwire’s publisher directory, we found Charlie Kirk’s website nested within a shell company called Shawnee Digital LLC. Shawnee Digital represents a total of 8 sites — what appears to form a disinformation ring.
(For those of you who are new here: We’re able to see exactly who Playwire partners with in their sellers.json directory. This is a publicly available directory of the entities they work with, part of a universal standard created by the IAB, to help advertisers cross-check that their ad dollars are being sent to the correct accounts.)
Some highlights from the ring:
a. Hannity.com — Whose namesake was coordinating the insurrection via text messages with White House staff
b. HumanEvents.com — Which employs both Charlie Kirk and white nationalist/Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec as Senior Contributors
c. TheJeffreyLord.com – a political commentator who was fired from CNN after posting a Nazi slogan on Twitter
It looks to us like Playwire dropped CharlieKirk(.)com from their inventory the day after we launched our Defund The J6 Insurrectionists campaign (our campaign named Kirk as one of the biggest promoters of the insurrection.)
However, they left the door wide open for the rest of them. This is a problem because whoever operates Shawnee Digital has a track record for funneling ad dollars to disinformation sites. As long as they have an active Playwire account, they will be able to smuggle more of these sites into the advertising supply chain. (In the past, we’ve found both Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka collecting ad dollars in exactly this way.)
In other words, it’s not enough to block CharlieKirk.com. Playwire needs to nuke Shawnee Digital’s entire account. And that’s not just our opinion. That’s part of Playwire’s own Code of Conduct.
Publisher will not place any “Prohibited Content” on the Platforms and Networks. “Prohibited Content” includes any and all of the following:
(b) Content that promotes the taking up of arms against any person, government or entity or otherwise challenge or seek to overthrow any government; promotes bigotry, racism, hatred or harm against any group or individual or promotes discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, citizenship, ancestry, marital status, or age;
Damn, that’s pretty specific! But if they don’t want to enforce their own standards, they should let everyone know soon. Oracle Moat has given Playwire a brand safety rating of 99.8% for “the entire ad inventory across its portfolio of publishers.”
We give them a 100% for monetizing the insurrection.
Thanks for reading!
Nandini and Claire
ONE LAST THING!
Even with these major successes, we’re not stopping! We got here by working TOGETHER, and that's how we're going to get the job done - TOGETHER.