NEW YORK: This isn’t pulled from the pages of a spy novel, but it does have the thrill of an anonymous network trying to take down a massive entity.
The Twitter account Sleeping Giants—and the anonymous users behind it—have been working for nearly a year to stop advertising dollars from going to alt-right website Breitbart. To date, it’s prompted more than 3,300 companies (including PRWeek US) to block Breitbart from their ad buys.
The movement, which has followers around the world, had humble beginnings. One of the founders of Sleeping Giants, who declined to share his or her name in true underground network leader style, said it launched after a small group noticed ads from an unlikely company on Breitbart.
"We were shocked by what we saw [on Breitbart]," the founder said. "The next logical step was asking, ‘Who’s supporting this? Who are the advertisers?’ The first company we saw was SoFi, a progressive loan company from San Francisco. It seemed odd they’d be on there."
So the people behind Sleeping Giants tweeted at SoFi and its then-CEO Mike Cagney and asked if the company was aware its ads were on the website. Cagney replied the same day, saying the matter was investigated and explained why the ad was there. The startup pulled its ads from Breitbart a week later.
That’s where the movement was born.
Looked into. Seems you were seeing a retargeted ad (e.g. you visit our site and Google delivers you our ads on other sites).— Mike Cagney (@mcagney) November 17, 2016
Sleeping Giants and its legion of online supporters aren’t interested in boycotting any company with ads on Breitbart; they are more focused on ensuring a company knows where its ads are appearing. That’s why many tweets on behalf of Sleeping Giants are downright polite by typical Twitter standards, simply alerting the company that this is happening and asking it to block Breitbart.
"It became less of a boycotting effort and more of an informational effort," the founder said. "Most of these companies had no idea they were there. That was a pretty stunning revelation. Every advertiser that gets back to us always has the same story: we had no idea we were there. It’s the way the programmatic advertising works, the ads follow you around."
Some of the masked men and women behind the account have backgrounds in digital marketing and advertising, one cofounder said, making it easier for them to empathize with companies that have ads placed on websites using Google and Facebook’s platforms. With the focus on educating advertisers instead of a boycott, the group made a how-to guide for excluding websites from ad campaigns on Google AdWords.
Now that many advertisers are aware of how to block ads from Breitbart and other like-minded websites, the organization wants to shift the conversation to the advertising platforms, themselves, namely Google and Facebook.
"What we’d like to do is see systemic change in how ads are placed," the founder explained. "Google and Facebook run most of the ads on the internet. Google and Facebook are responsible for this. They are in control of the entire system and they don't think they are answerable to this. We’re hoping some brave company steps up and makes a point of it."
Some Sleeping Giants are already beginning to mention Facebook in their posts, drawing attention to not only the company advertising, but the service that places those ads all over the web.
The group’s latest action is contacting companies and organizations funding conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer’s investment firm Renaissance Technologies. The goal is the same: politely let the organizations know where their money is going and ask them to stop investing.
"We’re constantly moving goal posts," the cofounder said. "The goals are ever-changing and we hope that people are held to account for bigotry; we’re trying to do that by finding who’s funding it, who’s printing it, who’s making money off it. All of that matters."