After two years which have seen Fox News lunge even further towards the right wing of US politics, the news channel may now start to suffer the consequences, with the launch of a campaign to strip the news channel’s Foxnews.com website of advertising revenue.
Check My Ads, an organization run by two former marketing executives, launched its campaign to target Fox News in early June, accusing the news channel and its website of “working overtime to fuel the next insurrection”.
More than 40,000 people signed up in the first five days, forming an increasingly powerful lobbying group which aims to get ad exchanges to drop Foxnews.com.
The campaign comes at a time when prominent Fox News hosts are downplaying the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC as “a forgettably minor outbreak” of “mob violence”, continuing to dabble in election conspiracy theories, and have most recently begun to brand school teachers and drag performers as “groomers”.
Check My Ads was founded by two marketing executives who have a deep understanding of how advertising appears on websites. Despite its record of dabbling in misinformation, adverts for companies like Walgreens and Optimum can still be found on Foxnews.com. The adverts are largely placed there, Atkin said, by ad exchanges, which handle the distribution of adverts for advertising agencies.
“Foxnews.com benefits enormously from being a part of the global advertising society. Foxnews.com receives ads from blue chip brands, which gives incredible legitimacy to the lies that they are publishing. That brand equity is intrinsically valuable,” Atkin said.
A number of large companies have already stopped advertising on the Fox News after various misdeeds by its TV hosts over the years. But ads for Walgreens and the like still pop up on the Fox News website, despite the obvious link between the two entities. Whereas viewers of the TV channel might see adverts for relatively little known companies, like Nutrisystem and Balance of Nature, visitors to the website see the names of big companies, which can suggest to the reader that this is a respected website.
“When Fox is plugged into that ads supply chain, it gives them the legitimacy of a real news outlet, when in fact they are publishing disinformation regularly that leads to real-world violence.”
In the two weeks following the 2020 election, Fox News cast doubt on, or pushed conspiracy theories about the result 774 times, according to Media Matters for America, a watchdog group. That helped to fuel anger among Donald Trump’s supporters – rage which came to the surface on 6 January, when hundreds of Trump’s adherents stormed the US Capitol.
Since the Capitol attack, Fox News hosts have rubbished the idea that the storming of the building – done in an attempt to stop Joe Biden being declared president – was an insurrection. Fox News viewers have instead heard that it was a minor skirmish, one which may even have been orchestrated by the government.
That’s why, Atkin said, Check My Ads is determined to trim the network’s wings.
“Advertisers have been crystal clear that they do not want to sponsor violence. And we all saw what happened on January 6. It’s not just violence, this was the attempted overthrow of the government. This is world-scale political violence,” Atkin said.
Ad exchanges vet certain websites before placing adverts on behalf of their clients. If a website meets their criteria – and the criteria often include statements that the website does not endorse or encourage harassment or bullying – then ads are placed on them.
But the exchanges, Atkin said, are “not checking their inventory” thoroughly enough, and websites like Fox News are slipping through the cracks.
Check My Ads’ campaign works by finding which ad exchanges are active on a given website, which is easy enough to do: typing https://www.foxnews.com/ads.txt brings up the list.
The innovative part of Check My Ads is how the organization has set up a way for people to send swift, concise complaints to those ad exchanges. The organization sends out email templates to those who sign up, which they can send on to ad exchanges, flagging sites where the exchange has placed ads on sites which are incompatible with the exchanges’ stated policy.
“The ad exchanges promise in their legal documentation in these policies that are available online to anyone: ‘We only work with premium publishers and we will never work with websites that publish election disinformation, the promotion of real world violence, all of these other things,” Atkin said.
“That is providing a sense of false confidence to advertisers. Because as we know, these ad exchanges are still sending ads and money and data to the propaganda outlets that are doing our society the most harm, and who are the most brand unsafe.”
In a statement, Fox News said: “Fox News Media strongly supports the first amendment and is proud to lead the industry in featuring more dissenting viewpoints on the major issues facing the country than our cable news competitors, which is why we attract the most politically diverse audience in television news.”
The campaign isn’t going to financially cripple Fox News. Some 95% of Fox’s revenue comes from cable contracts, as opposed to advertising, NPR reported this year. But Atkin believes the campaign, as well as removing ads which lend legitimacy to Fox News, could also prevent Foxnews.com from collecting data on its users so that they can be later targeted with specific content – potentially anti-democratic content.
Fox News is the most-watched cable news channel in the US, and is a huge opponent. But Check My Ads are hopeful that they have found a foolproof way to at least take away some of its power.
“The fact is that the advertising industry, in general, has said one thing and it has done another,” she said.
“We are opening the conversation up for everyone who wants to say enough is enough.”