The Sunday Show: Reflecting on Sleeping Giants

Justin Hendrix / Jan 30, 2022

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Earlier this year, Matt Rivitz announced he plans to step aside from Sleeping Giants, an activist campaign launched in 2016 to address the flow of advertising revenues to sites that promote hate speech and disinformation. The ad tech ecosystem is exceptionally complex- and the incentives in place lend themselves to waste and fraud, and to large sums of money flowing to sites that promote questionable content, often without the knowledge of the people spending that money. In 2016, Rivitz and Nandini Jammi, now the cofounder of Check My Ads and a recent guest on this podcast, started building a community of concerned citizens to notify the brands often unwittingly propping up sites that feature bigoted or dangerous content.

Scoring early wins-- such as against Breitbart, which was starved of advertising by the Sleeping Giants campaign, losing thousands of programmatic advertisers-- the effort ended up becoming a community of as many as a million concerned citizens with chapters all over the world, such as in France, Australia and Brazil, to fight hate in their countries. Sleeping Giants also played a role in a variety of campaigns, such as the DropFox campaign that urged media buyers not to buy advertisements on Fox News, and the recent Stop Hate For Profit boycott against Facebook, that saw hundreds of companies join a boycott of the social media site for its failure to address bigotry and violence on its platform.

An academic paper published last year by researchers at Brazil’s UFMG and Switzerland’s EPFL detailed the emergent strategy of the organization, and its effects. Using an annotated database of Sleeping Giants communications- both from its original Twitter account and from “chapters” elsewhere in the world- the researchers sought to answer whether its activism was effective in provoking the intended response, how its efforts affected the “popularity and engagement” of the sites it targeted, and the extent to which interactions with companies were impacted subsequent to a campaign. The researchers found that out of a sample of 161 Sleeping Giants complaints to companies running ads on sites it deemed offensive, 84% produced a response.

Sleeping Giants has been threatened with lawsuits and harassment. Rivitz was threatened with a lawsuit by Breitbart. (My name was mentioned in a letter sent to Rivitz by Breitbart's lawyers, presumably because I interacted with the Sleeping Giants account on Twitter.) The Brazilian chapter was targeted by supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro.

Matt is now Chief Purpose Officer at NOBL Media, a company that says its mission is to bring advertising back to credible content and help create a safer, healthier Internet. It offers what it calls a credibility targeting solution for programmatic advertising, and recently announced a partnership with a company called Basis Technologies to automate the targeting of campaigns to content that meets a standard of quality.

I caught up with Matt about his decision to step aside, what he’s learned, what’s changed in the advertising ecosystem, and what’s necessary to achieve a lasting solution to the problems Sleeping Giants has addressed these last five years.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...