Nov 6, 2023

OpenWeb's secret relationship with Steve Bannon

Something interesting is going on with OpenWeb.

The ad exchange has built a niche for itself in the advertising business: “saving online conversations” from hate, lies and disinformation. They’ve gone on the record to say that they would never work with Breitbart. And they’ve made a big show of being big on brand safety.

But since at least April, they’ve been monetizing a different Steve Bannon production: Populist Press. And they appear to be doing it under a fake account designed to throw advertisers off the scent.

The ad industry agrees on one thing and one thing only: Steve Bannon is toxic. So what’s the deal between Bannon and OpenWeb?

What happened?

We like to periodically check in on OpenWeb. The ad exchange promises to “solve the toxicity crisis”, but we always find them making money off exactly that.

It’s no different this time. On October 19, we found OpenWeb partnering with a handful of toxic outlets — including EU sanctioned Russian state media. Some of these accounts went live in April 2023, well after the invasion of Ukraine began.

We flagged the following accounts:

We also found OpenWeb accounts for:

Following our tweets, OpenWeb dropped Pravda, RT and Breitbart from their inventory by the next business day. But they kept Populist Press.

Now, Populist Press’s ties to Bannon are so clear that it was demonetized by Google in May 2022 following the publication of a ProPublica investigation.

So what made OpenWeb pick it up? Why risk it all for a Bannon production?

An ad for Ivermectin served in Steve Bannon's email, Political Signal, by Jeeng, a subsidiary of OpenWeb.

OpenWeb might be faking its Bannon account

The answer could be that they hoped nobody would find out.

OpenWeb does not declare their partnership with Populist Press to advertisers in its sellers.json directory, a publicly listed file of publishers that each ad exchange maintains for its clients.

Alternatively, it’s possible that they’re working with the outlet through a falsely labeled account. OpenWeb lists a partnership with Augusta Partners in its AdYouLike inventory (acquired by OpenWeb last year):

AdYouLike's sellers.json file, showing Augusta Partners.

Let’s translate this for a second. An honest sellers.json entry will tell you the website and the owner of the site.

This OpenWeb sellers.json entry is nonsense. Augusta Partners does not own ProtonMail. And ProtonMail — a paid email service — doesn’t even run ads.

In the ad industry, this is known as “mislabeling.” A mislabeled account allows you to disguise the true identity of the websites you’re working with. It’s a form of advertiser fraud.

OpenWeb may want advertisers to believe they’re running ads for ProtonMail. However, we think this account may actually belong to “August Partners.”

This would line up with a handful of data points:

OpenWeb isn’t solving the “crisis of toxicity” anytime soon.

The Action

We shouldn’t have to wait six months for OpenWeb to stop funding a Steve Bannon website. Help us reach out directly to company executives.

Click here to open up an email pre-filled with text to send them, or manually enter the text below:

Email: [email protected], [email protected].

Subject: OpenWeb and Steve Bannon?


Hi Nadav,

I just learned that OpenWeb is running ads for Steve Bannon-affiliated website Populist Press. This website clearly doesn’t meet your standards. I’m aware that you plan to start reviewing your inventory next year. This means you will be funding Populist Press for at least the next six months.

Is there a reason you can’t review Populist Press and remove it from your inventory now?

Thank you for your time,


Let us know if you hear back — and we’ll do the same.

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