FEED: You spoke at The Big Think in London about the problems of digital advertising funding disinformation and extremism. Can you take us through that?
JD: I started to become aware of this through something personal. I used to live in Tower Hamlets, east London – a beautiful, multicultural place which I loved. One evening, a neighbour got badly beaten up by a white, racist gang, for being Turkish. That was around 2016. So I started looking into where hate narratives come from. At that time, the United Nations had called out the British tabloids as being ‘uniquely hostile to migrants’, compared to all the media across Europe. Then, in 2017, there was an investigation by The Times into advertising funding Islamist terror on YouTube. We started to work with civil society groups really tracking this stuff – but that problem has not gone away. People are just more
aware of it. Katie Hopkins is no longer allowed to earn money by comparing migrants to cockroaches in the national press, but it has “WE STARTED WORKING WITH CIVIL SOCIETY GROUPS REALLY TACKLING ALL THIS STUFF” morphed – and there’s still very little understanding of how advertising is funding some of these massively harmful narratives.
In that Big Think talk, I mentioned the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, and how there has been this mainstreaming of a mad theory now believed to some degree by 60% of French people, and 30% of Americans. Yet I asked the audience of industry experts if they had ever heard of the Great Replacement, and only six or seven hands went up. I think there’s been an abdication of responsibility. The idea we’ve been sold by the ad tech industry is: ‘Leave it to us. We understand your audience. We use machine learning to target people with relevant ads.’ But that means you’ve completely lost control. You might be on 40,000 websites, but there’s no way you can check if the content is racist or spreading conspiracy theories.
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