AppNexus Inc., operator of one of the biggest digital advertising services, has barred Breitbart News from using its ad-serving tools because the conservative online publisher violated its hate speech rules.
AppNexus scrutinized Breitbart’s website after U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump tapped Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart, to be White House chief strategist last week. The digital ad firm decided the publication had breached a policy against content that incites violence, said AppNexus spokesman Joshua Zeitz.
“We did a human audit of Breitbart and determined there were enough articles and headlines that cross that line, using either coded or overt language,” he said.
Breitbart News Network Chief Executive Officer Larry Solov said in an e-mailed statement that Breitbart “has always and continues to condemn racism and bigotry in any form.”
AppNexus’s decision comes while the two largest digital ad sellers, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., grapple with the rise of fake news — misleading or intentionally deceptive articles that appear in social news feeds and online search results. Last week, both companies said they would pull advertising support from sites that spread “misinformation.”
The AppNexus case is different. Zeitz stressed that the publication is not being targeted for its editorial position or for spreading misinformation. “This blacklist was solely about hate speech violation,” he said. Other ad tech firms are sticking with Breitbart.
Breitbart doesn’t buy ads directly using AppNexus. However, the publication shows ads bought through multiple automated online ad networks and exchanges. Now that Breitbart is barred, it won’t get ads from the exchange that AppNexus runs. It’s unclear how much of a financial impact this may have, but it could lower the price of ads on Breitbart.
AppNexus, backed by large companies like Microsoft Corp., News Corp. and WPP Plc, is an important source of ad dollars for many online publications. The company was second to Google in the automated ad serving market for publishers, earning $2.1 billion in revenue in 2014, and paying $1.9 billion of that to publishers, Cowen & Co. has estimated. AppNexus executive Jonathan Hsu said in February the company handles about $2.5 billion in ad spending. Some of that went to Breitbart.com until now, Zeitz said.
“Breitbart News Network continues to experience exceptional growth having attracted over 45 million unique visitors in the last thirty days alone,” Solov also said in his statement. “We have built an engaged community of loyal readers who are also a powerful consumer group.”
The move by AppNexus underscores the predicament technology companies face trying to police editorial content without limiting free speech. Google and Facebook have banned content over hate speech, yet they move carefully when it comes to publications with a political bent. Twitter Inc. recently purged right-wing users, including a prominent Breitbart writer, for violating its terms of service. Facebook was criticized when conservative websites struggled to access its popular “trending news” section.
Breitbart is another vexing case. It is popular, with 19 million unique monthly visitors in October, up from 12.9 million a year ago, according to ComScore. The online publication has been criticized for incendiary articles, such as one that warns of “Muslim invaders” and another that dubs conservative thinker Bill Kristol a “Renegade Jew.” One headline offered this fix for online harassment: “women should log off.”
Trump said on Tuesday that Breitbart was “just a publication” that covers stories like other news organizations, according to tweets from New York Times reporters during an interview with the president-elect.
Google’s DoubleClick service, the leader in digital display advertising, still powers ads on Breitbart’s website. That’s despite Google rules barring its ads from running next to “harassing or bullying content” and “content that incites or advocates for harm against an individual or group.” A spokeswoman for Google declined to comment.
Other ad tech companies whose networks work with Breitbart defended their partnerships as evidence of the web’s openness. Ad firm OpenX is “proud to support a free and vibrant internet,” said spokeswoman Lekha Rao.
“We do not make it our business to police editorial content,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, Chief Marketing Officer for Pubmatic, which offers tracking tools that appear on Breitbart.com.
AppNexus, however, frames its decision as maintaining standards for the marketers whose ads run next to Breitbart’s headlines. “We would ban this as quickly as a site that has pornography and violence,” said Zeitz.