Lawmakers Look Into Taxpayer-Funded Media Blacklist Firms

NRB | March 2, 2023 | Advocacy, NRB News

As corporate boardrooms wage war on religious and political free speech, lawmakers are responding to reports that blacklists aimed at defunding and deplatforming conservative speech may have benefited from taxpayer dollars.

Members of Congress and committees of jurisdiction responded in force after learning of a “stealth operation” of well-resourced “disinformation” tracking groups whose efforts to blacklist and defund conservative media are “likely costing the news companies large sums in advertising dollars,” per recent investigative reports by the Washington Examiner.

In the advertising industry, many digital ad companies turn to outside firms for guidance on strategic ad placement on credible websites. But some are taking this a step further: adopting blacklists generated by groups who want to defund and demonetize conservative media—in their view, “disinformation.”

One such firm is the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a British group with U.S. affiliates. The core product GDI provides its clients is a “dynamic exclusion list,” ranking websites and news organizations by “risk,” that companies can consult to steer clear of websites deemed high “risk” by GDI. However, as lawmakers learned, “risk” for GDI seems to just mean conservative.

GDI’s description of its product explains,

The core output of the Disinformation Index is our Dynamic Exclusion List (DEL) of global news publications rated high risk for disinformation. The DEL contains the worst offending websites and apps across multiple countries and languages and is continually updated to capture new disinformation sources and narratives. Ad tech companies and platforms can license GDI data to defund and downrank these worst offenders, thus disrupting the ad-funded disinformation business model.

GDI maintains numerous lucrative, high-level partnerships with tech and communications companies, including Xandr, an advertising marketplace purchased by Microsoft from AT&T in 2021. In the fall of 2022, Xandr announced it would be partnering with GDI to help counter online content deemed “morally reprehensible or patently offensive,” lacking “redeeming social value,” or that “could include false or misleading information.” Xandr and similar GDI clients can then help to “defund and downrank” these sites by taking their ad buying elsewhere. In effect though, this means the removal of ads and diversion of ad revenue from conservative websites.

GDI claims to be “nonpartisan” in providing solutions to countering “disinformation”—but its “exclusion list” suggests otherwise. The Examiner’s reporting revealed that thousands of conservative outlets have been added to the exclusion list. One NRB member, Newsmax, was listed as one of the top ten so-called “riskiest” outlets. The other “riskiest” and “worst” outlets identified were American Spectator, the Federalist, the American Conservative, One America News, the Blaze, the Daily Wire, RealClearPolitics, Reason, and the New York Post.

Another of GDI’s high-profile partnerships is with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a nonprofit entity that received $300 million—near full funding—from the U.S. Department of State in 2021. NED granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to GDI in 2020 and 2021, the Examiner revealed, thereby funneling taxpayer money toward companies that are aggressively blacklisting conservative media entities. The Examiner also revealed other federal grantmaking connections between GDI and U.S. government programs in its full report.

Members of Congress responded swiftly to these revelations. Following the outcry of several U.S. Senators and Representatives, multiple committees are launching investigations into the State Department’s connection with the blacklisting firm. Committee heads have already requested records, scheduled briefings, and plan to press the Biden administration for further information. With heavy pressure from the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government as well as conservative advocacy groups, there have already been signs of withdrawal from these deplatforming efforts. Microsoft has suspended their relationship with Xandr and has removed the negative flags on conservative media. The National Endowment for Democracy also announced that it will not provide GDI with future grant money, “given our commitment to avoid the perception that NED is engaged in any work domestically, directly or indirectly.”

The NRB is an ardent champion of First Amendment freedoms and works tirelessly to advocate for the rights and interests of Christian communicators. The NRB will continue to monitor actions taken on this issue.

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