Social Media Activist Group Goes After Advertisers on Racist, Extremist Websites, Shows
Nandini Jammi ’10 co-founded Sleeping Giants, a passion project that notifies major brands that their ads are appearing on alongside hateful and extremist content.
After hearing news reports about Breitbart News Network throughout the 2016 presidential election, Nandini Jammi ’10 decided to visit the site that Steve Bannon, its former executive chairman and one-time chief strategist for President Donald Trump, called “the platform of the alt-right.” She wasn’t surprised to find incendiary headlines. What startled her was the prominent Old Navy ad featuring a mixed-race couple.
“My first reaction was, ‘I bet they didn’t make that campaign so it would end up on Breitbart.com,’” Jammi said.
She took a screenshot—and then a hard look at what other companies were advertising on the right-wing news site. That planted the seed for Sleeping Giants, a passion project she co-founded to make “bigotry and hate less profitable” by notifying major brands that their ads are appearing on alongside hateful and extremist content.
Sleeping Giants also took a leading role in advertisers leaving Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, removal of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from major social media platforms, and cutting off funding to Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan through online payment platforms.
Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Sleeping Giants (which is nonpartisan and non-political) is bracing for another busy period, broadening their targeting to include the entire online advertising technology ecosystem, in addition to individual websites and advertisers. The group continues to ask its 300,000 Twitter and Facebook followers to take a screenshot of an ad next to hate speech, tweet it at the company and tag @slpng_giants. To date, 4,227 brands have stopped advertising on Breitbart.
“We are feeling a real sense of urgency,” Jammi said, “especially as three years after we first identified this issue, advertisers and ad tech companies still don’t have a game plan for identifying and staying away from disinformation and hate speech.”
But it’s grown since Breitbart. After being alerted by Sleeping Giants, Chase Bank discovered only a fraction of the websites where its ads appeared were garnering any activity, and some were sites the company did not want to advertise on.
“It’s very embarrassing that the industry has been caught red-handed by a bunch of volunteers on the internet,” Jammi said.
Their influence hasn’t gone unnoticed. In an August 2018 episode of the progressive podcast Pod Save America, Crooked Media co-founder and podcast host Tommy Vietor called Sleeping Giants “one of the most impactful examples of citizen activism I’ve seen since 2016.”
Jammi traces her interest in these issues back to a two-year Honors Humanities course she took at the University of Maryland. Her professor, Patrick Grzanka ‘04, Ph.D. ‘10, taught her how to question the value of science and technology that doesn’t benefit humanity.
Grzanka remembers Jammi asking “these really big questions”—What is power? How does society change? What influences others?—that she continues to address.
“She’s calling out bad faith social actors and holding them accountable. I’m so proud of her for that,” said Grzanka, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee.
Jammi, who ran her first Google Ads campaign earlier that year for a small tech startup on a tight $3,000 budget, “cared very deeply” about her own ad placements. With a quick check of her settings, Jammi realized she, like many major corporations, had accidently set Google Ads to place her ad to “run wherever on the internet.”
It felt like a revelation: Cut off funding from Google Ads, and these platforms will run out of money. Jammi wrote a Medium post about what she’d found, hoping for viral success. Instead, it caught the eye of Matt Rivitz, an advertising copywriter with similar concerns.
They teamed up, at first staying anonymous both to protect themselves against harassment and to keep the focus on the movement instead of themselves. But Rivitz’s identity was revealed by The Daily Caller, and Jammi had a choice to make.
At that point, over a year into Sleeping Giants, Jammi decided she was ready to start making an impact under her own name, especially in an industry that is “overwhelmingly white and male.”
“There’s only so much you can do when you’re anonymous,” Jammi said. “I felt like I was a valuable voice. I would like to be at the table as decisions are made to fix the advertising industry.”
Now, Jammi writes the newsletter BRANDED for her new company Check My Ads, which helps marketers implement brand safety best practices. If she has her way, she said, major brands will never again pay—even inadvertently—to spread online intolerance and hate.
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