'Is the spaceboi going to sue us?' Disinfo cop targeting Musk ads laughs off litigation threat

Trustworthy Accountability Group is investigating X, formerly Twitter, for alleged violation of "brand safety" obligations, but ad industry group CEO says "vast majority" of accused members are exonerated.

Published: September 7, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: September 8, 2023 2:10pm

A nonprofit that purports to "cut off disinformation at the source" is trying to financially starve into nonexistence Elon Musk's X, formerly known as Twitter, by working to cut off the platform's advertising revenue.

The group, the Check My Ads Institute, is attempting the shutter the platform by getting its certification by an ad industry group yanked.

The group, spun off in late 2021 from a shuttered for-profit consultancy that itself lasted less than three years, is best known for naming and shaming brands whose advertisements appear on disfavored conservative websites and TV programs. 

It has taken credit for sending Warby Parker, Nissan and Lululemon among others fleeing from the Daily Wire, Steve Bannon, Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk, and kicked off an ongoing campaign against Fox News last summer for "promot[ing] the January 6th insurrection."

Cofounder Nandini Jammi disclosed last month she filed a complaint with the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), whose leadership council includes Amazon, Disney, Google, Meta and Spotify, to strip X of its TAG Brand Safety Certified designation.

X says it first earned the designation in 2020 and got it renewed in March, when Jammi says "the platform swelled with neo-Nazis and child abuse."

But her nonprofit is poking Musk just as the mercurial Tesla CEO escalates a fight with the Anti-Defamation League, which he accused of "trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic." 

Musk said X's U.S. ad revenue is "still down" 60%, which advertisers told him is "primarily" due to ADL's pressure on them, and floated the idea of polling X users on whether ADL should be kicked off the platform.

He is also contemplating defamation litigation against ADL, whose previous campaigns include threatening to brand Iceland with "Nazism" and drive away tourists if the Nordic country approved a circumcision ban. The Hill reported that ADL declined to comment on Musk's legal threat as a matter of policy.

Ron Coleman, litigation partner in California Republican super-lawyer Harmeet Dhillon's New York office and a former ADL intern, defended Musk's saber-rattling in a Newsweek op-ed Tuesday.

ADL has "become part of a great online censorship machine that is being exposed day after day as an anti-free speech enterprise" and is "now merely a tax-exempt cadre of the national Democratic Party," Coleman wrote.

Just the News asked Jammi about the wisdom of trying to starve X of revenue just as Musk goes after ADL, and whether Check My Ads could financially survive a defamation lawsuit that might resemble billionaire Peter Thiel's lawfare against Gawker for outing him as gay.

"Oh is the big smart spaceboi going to sue us? I'm so scared," Jammi wrote in an email, ending with a winking-and-kissing emoji. 

Check My Ads is something of a lower-profile stateside counterpart to the U.K.-based Global Disinformation Index, whose onetime funding from the State Department is the subject of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act fight and congressional inquiry

Microsoft said its Xandr ad platform at least temporarily stopped using GDI's blacklist of conservative media amid scrutiny.

Check My Ads board member Joan Donovan drew attention this year, however, when the Harvard Kennedy School ordered the adjunct professor to wind down her four-year-old Shorenstein Center project on detecting, documenting and debunking "media manipulation."

While the school said only full faculty can lead projects long-term, various media reported that Donovan's high profile was becoming a problem for Shorenstein.

She's known for questioning the authenticity of Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop and her arguments with comedian Jon Stewart and, reportedly, Facebook's former policy chief about the validity of policing purported misinformation.

Donovan's project closed several months early, Aug. 31, so she could take a tenure-track position at Boston University, The Harvard Crimson reported. Donovan claimed she build the "X-Men of internet studies" at Harvard but said she didn't feel supported "as a scholar."

The mission of TAG's certification program is to "significantly reduce the risk of the misplacement of advertising on digital media of all types, thereby upholding brand safety and protecting the integrity of digital advertising," TAG says.

Its CEO, Mike Zaneis, told online ad trade publication Digiday this week that TAG had indeed opened an investigation of X but didn't say whether it was prompted by Jammi, who called Zaneis a "grifter" days before filing her complaint. 

Zaneis is known for setting up the Interactive Advertising Bureau's policy shop in the late 2000s, when the second wave of major internet companies first started bulking up on lobbying in D.C.

Jammi posted a screenshot of her complaint with links to articles by CNN, Business Insider and Media Matters, a liberal nonprofit watchdog that previously called on advertisers to demand more censorship from Musk-owned X as a condition of placing ads.

The articles variously claim ads for Adobe, Amazon, The New York Times, USA Today, Microsoft, Office Depot and the NBA among others have appeared alongside a "pro-fascist account" that celebrates Adolf Hitler — since suspended — and within search results for a film that claims the Jews caused both world wars to create the state of Israel. 

Another notes that Musk acknowledged X had reinstated a suspended account after removing its "child exploitation pictures associated with the criminal conviction of an Australian man in the Philippines." Musk said only X's child sexual exploitation team has seen the images.

These violate TAG brand safety standards that prohibit ad placements by content in several categories, from "Crime and Harmful Acts" to "Sensitive Social Issues," Jammi told TAG.

Zaneis told Just the News that TAG does not publicize investigations, results or who prompted it — sometimes TAG itself. But he said it gets "dozens" of complaints each year, mostly against "the biggest actors," and the process works "relatively quickly."

The "vast majority" end with companies "refuting" the allegations in a given complaint, which "usually doesn't have a lot of substance behind it," he said: TAG does not assume a "screenshot" is "prima facie evidence of noncompliance." For others, TAG works with companies to bring them into full compliance. 

Certified companies including Twitter undergo recertification each February, which requires a third-party audit and keeping paperwork to demonstrate their compliance throughout the year, Zaneis said.

Regarding Jammi's claim that TAG hid the "certification complaint form" required by its written process, Zaneis said it doesn't require a formal document, just emailed allegations. He laughed off her "grifter" label: "I have a job to do as CEO."

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